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Allen On Travel



A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we



Updated: 2016-09-22T02:51:46.204-04:00

 



1 Comments

2013-05-16T12:17:56.389-04:00

Getting Around Like a Dutchman in The Netherlands on BusinessFlying to Amsterdam is easy.  Schiphol Airport is a joy to use, with great air connections worldwide, including intra-European flights to everywhere.  The train service that connects the airport to Amsterdam is a snap to use, too, both convenient and frequent.Opting to travel by rail from other European cities to reach Amsterdam, it's hard to beat the frequent and comfortable Thalys and ICE TGV-like fast train services (like the one pictured below that just arrived Amsterdam from Paris Gare du Nord).   Trains from other cities and from the airport arrive to Amsterdam Centraal in the heart of the city.  From there it's easy to get a tram or an expensive taxi to one's destination in the city, or simply to walk.  But once there, how do you get around to conduct business? Most Dutch depend upon their bicycles for a good deal of local transport, not only in Amsterdam, but throughout all cities and towns in The Netherlands--for business conveyance as well as for personal trips.  Bikes are faster, cheaper, easier, and far more convenient than other modes of travel.  This is especially true in an environment where a great deal of the land is reclaimed from the sea and hence is very precious.  Living on reclaimed earth has brought a different perspective.  Room for roads is limited, let alone the square footage needed to park one's private automobile, and consequently the little space allocated for motor vehicles is expensive and hard to find.  Thus the Dutch bicycle culture prevails.  In fact, biking is the most common means of urban and suburban transport.  Take a look at the bike parking spaces at Amsterdam Centraal, for example (below photos).  I couldn't even find the parking lot for private autos, assuming there is one.Bike parking wedged between the train station and the canal in AmsterdamA sea of of bicycle parking just outside the Amsterdam train station Dutch city streets have been engineered to favor public transit, pedestrians, and bicycles.  Dedicated bike lanes are the norm, and even have their own traffic signals.Traveling to other Dutch cities from Amsterdam on business, it's common to take one of the many all-day trains that connect the towns and cities of Holland.  Train service is clean, convenient, modern, and frequent, as can be seen from the below pictures.  It's possible to get almost anywhere in the country throughout the day by train. Trains run all day between Amsterdam & other Dutch communitiesOn-board screens track train schedule & progressDutch trains have silent zones conducive to workingMany Dutch train travelers, including business travelers, take their bicycles with them.  Due to the strong cycling culture, trains in Holland are routinely fitted to accommodate on-board bikes.It's normal to bring your bike on the trains in The NetherlandsDutch towns and cities, as these photos demonstrate in Leiden and in Enkhuizen, are extremely bike-friendly places, with bicycle parking conveniently located almost everywhere very close to trains.  By contrast, in none of the Dutch city and town stations I visited was automobile parking apparent.Bike parking at the Enkhuizen train station is just a few steps from the trainsBike Parking at the Leiden train station as far as the eye can seeThe sheer number of bicycles in Holland is staggering compared to the U.S.Covered bike parking is available at most rail stations for commutersOf course private cars are available, along with public buses.  Yet despite the population density in Holland, most streets and roads there are not as congested as in America because so many business and personal trips are made by bicycle and rail rather than by motor vehicles.  An uncrowded roundabout near Leiden as seen from the trainAlmost every street and highway in Holland has dedicated bicycle lanes, and most bike lanes are very busy with cyclists day and night.  Bike lanes even have dedicated rail [...]



1 Comments

2013-05-02T07:13:40.820-04:00

Living Large Near the Opera in ParisA frustrating truth about business travel to beautiful locales like Paris is lack of time during the work week to enjoy what's around you.  To give myself time to adjust and to sample what a primo city like Paris has to offer, I have often arrived on a weekend, even a couple of days early.  No need to employ such a strategem, of course, if traveling to, say, Toledo, but not to imbibe a little local culture in Paris?  I mean, c'mon!  Whether your first trip or your fiftieth, cities like Paris are never dull.During a recent trip to Paris, I booked into the Millennium Opera Hotel on Boulevard Haussmann near the ornate opera house.  I arrived on a Saturday and managed to get to Musee d'Orsay to see all the impressionist masters' works before it closed at 6:00 PM.  Wandering around leisurely, something I have never before had time to do at the d'Orsay, I found an entire room on the ground floor of Toulouse Lautrec (north side off the main floor).  As an admirer of Lautrec's work, I lingered there.  Later that evening I enjoyed a memorable dinner at Au Petit Riche on Pelletier just a block away from the hotel. Their housemade fois gras was superb, as was the fillet au poivre. To accompany the good French beef, I ordered a Cote Rotie, one of my favorite Rhone varietals. The particular bottle poured, a 2007 vintage, was disappointing.  The delicious creme brulee, however, helped to make up for the vin tres ordinaire (forgive my terrible French).Au Petit Riche Restaurant, ParisAfter eating well at dinner Saturday night at Au Petit Riche, I kept it simple on Sunday: a light breakfast and a simple fromage crepe (with Gruyere) for lunch.As it wasn't a work day, I did a lot of walking, first to the Louvre, where I fought with record-breaking hordes even before noon (I thought they'd be in church on Sunday). Standing in front of the Mona Lisa with my back to her, I took photos of the thousand or so adorers struggling to get an iPhone snap of her famous enigmatic smile (she looks as though she just passed gas to me).Watching people gawking at the Mona LisaThen a leisurely walk along the Seine (a long walk) to the Eiffel Tower where I was surprised the earth didn't open up under the weight of so much flesh standing beneath the four corners. So many people had gathered, you'd have thought they were dropping barrels of free €50 notes off the tower to folks.But no, they were just rubber-neckers, come to gawk at Gustav Eiffel's contraption built for the 1889 World's Fair. Parisians then loathed the thing, calling it a giant asparagus. One critic famously quipped that he often ate lunch in the tower restaurant because it was the only place in the city he couldn't see it. Another divine dinner Sunday night, that one at a well-known, mainly local brasserie called "Le Vaudeville" directly across from the Bourse (stock exchange) on Rue Vivienne, about a 12 min walk from the hotel.  Its reputation as a local favorite not overrun with foreigners seemed right. After all, why not eat like the natives? The mainly local haunt, Le VaudevilleI wanted to try the Aux Lyonnaise, a bistro only a block away from Vaudeville that specializes in heavenly Lyonnaise cuisine using ancient recipes revived into epicurean delights. Sadly, it was closed that night.Arriving to Le Vaudeville at 7:45 PM I was seated with no wait. By 8:00 PM it was totally packed, mainly with Parisians out for Sunday dinner. The few foreigners were seated in the front room by the windows. Somehow I rated a table among the locals in the main room in back.I eyed the wine menu for bargains and found none, though the selection of Rhones included 3 fine old reds at astronomical prices. Knowing one can never go wrong with a nonvintage brut Champagne, I ordered a reasonably-priced Bollinger because I like the Bollinger house "dosage" (the secret mixture of Cognac and flavorings all Champagne houses add to distingu[...]



1 Comments

2013-04-24T09:58:43.934-04:00

Hotel Comfort, Bus Revelation In LondonNice shelter if you can get itPraise heavens for the London Millennium Mayfair Hotel!  Situated in the heart of Mayfair on Grosvenor Square close to the American Embassy, it's a great location for business or leisure travelers.  I booked my family in there over Spring Break and got a good deal, too--at least for a Central London hotel property.  Our $282 rate included a gigantic room even by U.S. standards (room 438).  With the fold-out couch for our two kids open all day, there was ample room to move around.  We also enjoyed a complimentary full breakfast buffet every morning, use of the executive lounge throughout the day (which included complimentary cocktails and wine in the evenings), a daily £15 discount for room service or in the lobby bar, and 20% off at the swanky in-house Avista Restaurant.  The nice front desk staff also let us check in early, a real plus after an all-night flight.The hotel's location on Grosvenor Square means it's quiet and calm. Being in the center of Mayfair, much of Central London is within reasonable walking distance, too. The seventh floor executive lounge was spacious and dignified, and always staffed by professionals.  Lounge staff always made us feel welcome and anticipated our every need.Also memorable were the bathroom features:  The shower's water pressure like the Colorado River after the spring snowmelt, so strong that you literally have to brace yourself not to fall over from it.  No wimpy toilet flush like the USA, either; at least two times the pressure and water volume of American toilets.  Straight-across shower curtain instead of the bowed-out ones.  Bath sheets big as blankets instead of ordinary towels to dry oneself.Perhaps best of all was the service throughout the property.  We encountered a great number of staff in several departments, and they were universally kind, helpful, and upbeat.  Not a rotten egg or sourpuss in the bunch.Such courteous service makes any hotel experience, especially on business. That's one reason this is my preferred property when in London on business.London Transport city buses?  Really?On business trips to London I always take a taxi to my clients' workplaces (or walk, if close).  Cabs are very expensive, of course, especially with the extra Central London "congestion" charges applicable in Mayfair.  Since this was a pleasure trip, we eschewed cabs and used London Transport's Oyster Cards, good for all-day travel on the Underground or city buses. We pre-purchased cards good for zones 1 and 2, which includes most of Central London.  To my great surprise, we found the buses wonderfully easy to use.  In fact we never used the Underground at all this trip.  London Buses on Piccadilly near Green Parkas seen from the upper deck of a similar busI have my wife to thank for the bus discovery.  Before we left home, she printed a one-page bus map of Central London which we found indispensable.  It was all so easy.  I've been traveling to London since 1973, and yet I never tried to master the city buses until now.  How sad is that?  Next time I am there on business, I will use the buses instead of cabs wherever I can.  The Central London bus map can be found at:http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/acad/lgri/summer-school/central_bus_map.pdf. It doesn't include every route, just the major ones. But that's sufficient.  Here it is:[...]



7 Comments

2013-04-22T13:57:52.683-04:00

On the Twenty-First Century Limited London-ParisWhy fly to the Continent when there's Eurostar, the channel tunnel train?  Central London to central Paris in three hours in comfort and with minimal hassle:  It's a no-brainer. OK, it's not the elegant service it was 15-16 years ago.  My wife and I took Eurostar in the 90s when it was new and operated from Waterloo. We somehow snagged a discounted First Class fare. The service seemed luxurious then, as well as fast. Our trip recently from London to Paris was in "Standard" class and much more akin to a bus service, with nothing luxurious about it. Nothing wrong with that, though. In fact almost every seat was filled, a credit to its operating "above the rail" profitability and a model for Amtrak to emulate, if it ever can.  (Capital costs for the Channel tunnel and the trainsets themselves have been written off or absorbed. Both the Eurostar London-Paris and London-Brussels and the Thalys TGV-like service Paris-Brussels-Cologne-Amsterdam are profitable on an operating basis.) In fact I've been told today's frequent and cheap Eurostar service has created a whole new class of commuters.  There are folks who now live in the Paris suburbs who use Eurostar to get to work in London.Amazingly, we paid $63 one way for each of three tickets and $45 one way for our daughter's ticket (she is 9).  It's a great bargain and far better than flying despite the slight hassle of security and passport control at London's St. Pancras Station--still far faster than at any airport. We pre-purchased nonrefundable tickets online which I printed at home. The barcode opened the security barrier for us at the DIY gate at St. Pancras. All very well thought-out and efficient. Here's what the boarding area looks like at St. Pancras--comfortable and clean: When our train was announced on the departure board, the gate and escalator opened automatically, and we found our car easily, as the car numbers are printed on the platform opposite the doors.  Here are photos of the boarding process:Once on board, there is plenty of overhead space and at the ends of cars for stowing luggage.  We chose four seats (in advance, online) in the center of the car facing each each other with a table in the middle:The train operated dead on time. Pretty soon after exiting London, we were flying towards the tunnel.  I went to the cafe car and bought a half bottle of Champagne to enhance the experience (we were, after all, on vacation).  The cafe car is nothing fancy--really more like a standard Amtrak cafe car now--but it was clean, well-maintained, and the selections were decent and the Champagne cold (and even reasonably priced):Out of the tunnel we accelerated to well over 150 MPH through the French countryside.  My wife and I sipped our Champagne and enjoyed the scenery on a rare sunny day in France.  At times our Eurostar reached 300 km/h, or 188 mph, which is achieved on the "LGV Nord" between the channel and the northern outskirts of Paris. (LGV refers to the tracks: High Speed Line in French).  It was an incredibly smooth ride, too. I even bought two carnets of 10 Paris Metro tickets each in the cafe car when purchasing a pizza for our kids.  Saved a lot of time at Gare du Nord.  Pretty soon we were slowing for the Paris burbs, and grabbing our bags for disembarking.  I was amazed at how fast the trip seemed--because it was fast.  In decades past I had occasion to commute between London and Paris on job assignments, but it was an all-day ordeal then: a (not very fast) train to Dover; a (very slow) ferry boat to Calais across the choppy, cold, dreary English Channel; another (not very speedy) train to Paris.  It wasn't cheap, either.  Eurostar was a great way to travel for fun with the kids, of course, but I couldn't help marveling at how it's been perfected into a fantastic business tool[...]



2 Comments

2013-04-12T22:36:18.080-04:00

Economy Comfort and Other Little Travel Provider FibsThe experience of travel exposes each of us, of course, to the vagaries of reality.  I don't know about you, but ofttimes the travel services advertised or expected are not what I get.  To most modern flyers, for instance, it may seem petty of me to gripe about the diminution of aircraft (from full-sized jet to RJ) now in service on Delta between Raleigh and New York.  After all, it's just a smaller airplane, right? True, but that's not the full story.  Since at least the 1960s through the early 2000s, airlines serving RDU and the New York area airports supplied 727s, 737s, DC-9s,  MD80s, and even occasionally 757s for the route.  The flights then were full of business customers, just as today.  The short one-hour service was never fancy, but it was comfortable.  Frequently, we were connecting to international flights and had paid a great deal of money for the privilege of flying in First or Business Class.  The "premium" experience started in the domestic First Class cabin at RDU when we boarded the plane, so that it was seamless.  Even in economy, the planes were roomy and the seats tolerable.  It gave us comfort to think our money was well-spent.Not any more, though.  Tiny, tinny, and tired regional jets now ply the route to the Big Apple from Raleigh.  The crews are typically third-party contractors, and it often shows.  RJ crews are more likely not to show up or to be late to the gate.  So your flight's late and you miss a connection?  They still get paid.  Though Delta has announced future 2-class refits to some of its regional jet fleet, their RJs out of RDU offer one class of service: cramped.  If you bought an international First Class or Business Class ticket, forget about it.  You are just one sardine wedged tightly into the can until you get to your international flight at JFK, no matter how much you paid.  You don't even rate a free cocktail en route to New York.  The seats are small and close together.  City bus service is more comfortable.  RJs fly slower than full-size planes, too, so the trips take a bit longer than they ever have.  Flights using RJs have a tendency to be late and never really catch up on their schedules.  When service disruptions caused by weather or ATC occur, airlines typically begin cancelling RJ flights first because each RJ impacts a relatively smaller number of passengers than a full-sized jet.  Altogether, RJ flights are not comfortable and have eliminated every bit of fun in flying.  Put in context, therefore, my complaint is valid.  I don't mind flying RJs to smaller markets like Omaha, but between Raleigh and New York, they are a sour note.  Give us back full-sized jets to New York, please!  Full-sized aircraft are no guarantee of comfort, either.  At JFK for a recent Delta flight to London Heathrow with my family, I had used my Platinum privileges to reserve four seats in  Delta's "Economy Comfort" section of coach. I snagged the best seats in Economy Comfort, too, on the bulkhead starboard side right behind Business Elite.However, the trouble with Delta's Economy Comfort is that often it's not.  Sure, the first few rows of coach seats are called Economy Comfort.  But Delta has so many airplanes on international routes that it hasn't converted all of them to true Economy Comfort, which they define as having four inches more "seat pitch" (distance between seats for better legroom) and four inches more recline.Certainly the Economy Comfort seats on our 767 to Heathrow didn't live up to those standards, nor did the Airbus coming home (Amsterdam/Detroit, an old Northwest plane and route).  Those seats didn't feel as if they were any more distant between rows  than the infinite number of rows of economy behind us stretching to th[...]



3 Comments

2013-04-22T13:53:46.468-04:00

Spring Break:Getting to LondonSix months ago my wife and I looked for tropical places we could escape to from Raleigh with our two kids over their Spring Break in late March/early April.  When we found only scary-high airfares to favorite destinations like the USVI and Belize, we checked Europe instead.  Surprisingly, the fares were cheaper, so we planned a trip to London for 3 days, then Paris for 3 days, and ending up in Amsterdam for 3 days before flying home.We didn't want to fly back from London because of their absurd departure taxes on air travel.  Those taxes don't apply, though, when flying into the UK.  Our open-jaw tickets on Delta were cheap enough that we could easily justify the rail fares to get us from London to Paris and from there to Amsterdam.Used to be Delta had real planes flying RDU to the New York airports, but these days it's mostly CRJs and ERJs.  Ours was a Canadair, uncomfortable as always, and late to boot, but we made up a bit of time en route owing to the fat built into the schedule, landing at JFK on time at Gate 18.  Still, we had a short connection and had to fast-walk to our departure Gate 8 to catch DL03 to Heathrow.  From gate 18 to gate 8 sounds close, but it's in fact very distant.  Even moving swiftly through the old Pan American World Airways terminal, I could see it was as shopworn as it had appeared to me in 1979 when I flew PanAm quite a bit to London.The flight was boarding by the time we made it to gate 8, and we walked down the jetway with no wait.  My Delta Platinum status had allowed me access to Economy Comfort, the rows near the front of coach with 4 inches more legroom and recline--or supposedly so.  Our seats were 15FG and 16FG, the first two rows behind Business Elite.  They didn't seem to have more pitch to me, but we did have free movies on demand and the relative privacy and comfort of the front rows.The seats were not comfortable, not even for the short 7-hour flight, and the meal service was typically an abomination of mediocrity.  Nonetheless, the crew was attentive and kind, and the movies plentiful.  As we taxied in at Heathrow after an on-time arrival, the Purser walked back from Business class to offer me a Fast Track pass through Immigration and a Yotel voucher for a short-stay room at Heathrow to shower and freshen up.  I took both, gratefully.  She thanked me for my five million miles on Delta.After the typical rat's maze very long walk to reach the Immigration barrier, we joined the long queue labeled "Fast Track" while observing the much longer regular line.  In a few minutes we realized the Fast Track line moved at a snail's pace because it terminated at just two Immigration stations, while the regular (non Fast Track) line moved far quicker to reach what looked like ten or more immigration clerks.  By the time we realized Fast Track was a joke, we had too much time invested in the queue, and simply waited it out.  False advertising:  Fast Track took 42 minutes of waiting, not at all speedy.  Turned out the real VIPs were brought by airline staff not to the Fast Track line but to the adjacent "invalids" queue and let in there for a very short wait to reach an immigration agent.Oh well, we were on vacation, so we absorbed the delay without undue stress, just some complaining on my part.  Once done, we shot through the Customs line (we only had carry-on luggage, as always) and exited the secure area in search of the Yotel short-stay mini-hotel.It was easy to find and close-by.  The Yotel room was tiny, like on a modest sailboat, but fine with a great shower.  Afterwards, with a clean set of clothes, I felt almost human again.  Truth is, I adjust to very long flights and time changes, such as to Asia and South Africa, better than I do going eastbound to Europe.  Jetlag kills me going to Britain or t[...]



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2013-03-20T14:42:09.681-04:00

Getting Home on Delta Wasn't EasyLast week I detailed how Delta Air Lines compounded their early morning error into a long day of travel uncertainty, stress, and misery.  However, I didn't quite finish that story.  I flew to Houston and back from Raleigh for a ninety minute business meeting.  Sounds simple, but my day began at 4:15 AM, and I got home almost 20 hours later just before midnight.  At the close of my previous post I had finally managed to get boarding passes straightened out for the two return flights (IAH/ATL and ATL/RDU).  I was prepared to collapse into my seat on the first flight and take a much-needed snooze after imbibing an adult beverage, maybe more than one.After all, the airplane and crew were in Houston on time and seemed ready to go on time, and we boarded on time.  Just before the door was closed, though, the captain announced there was very rainy weather in Atlanta and a ceiling of 700 feet.  He predicted a "few minutes delay getting to our gate, at worst." I didn't believe him for a minute.  Just as my Bombay Sapphire G&T had been served, I tensed up for the umpteenth time that day. My connection time in ATL was less than an hour at best, and I knew from many similar experiences that lots could go wrong and probably would.  I decided to have only the one pre-flight drink and to stay alert.The ride got extremely bumpy soon after we reached altitude and stayed that way, which didn't surprise me based on the captain's description of the weather.  The flight attendants were told to stay strapped in, so no one got another drink.  Once close to ATL, it took a lot longer to get slotted into the landing sequence than the pilot had been told.  The ceiling was low all right, almost to the ground by the time we hit the tarmac, giving me my first view of where we were: way, way on the far south side of the airport on the most distant of the new runways.  I knew it would be a long taxi to our gate, and it was, a good 15 minutes of stop-and-go shimmying to cross active runways and to avoid the conga lines of planes queued up all over the rain-drenched airport.Thank God for FlightStats.com.  As we shuffled along, I inquired via smartphone about our arrival gate (Delta no longer announces the arrival gate or connecting flight gates as they used to): A9, not too bad a location.  But I groaned upon seeing that my connecting flight was E1, a darn long hike from A9.  And it showed my connecting flight posted on time, too.By the time we arrived at the gate, I had 15 minutes to make my flight.  I ran all the way down the A concourse to the escalator, dodging the large, lethargic crowds (people wandering around airports always seem to be either confused or in no hurry), then brushed past everyone standing on the down escalator (Americans are notoriously reluctant to walk down escalators even when unburdened by bags), and barely made the "Plane Train" (you'd think the ATL airport authority could have come up with a more clever name).  Once off the train at E, I bounded up the escalator (causing many heads to turn--no doubt few Americans are ever seen walking, let alone running, UP an escalator unless the law is after them), then sprinted the length of the concourse to the very end to reach E1, arriving just about one minute prior to departure time.  There, to my astonishment, I found the gate open and welcoming.  They seemed to be holding the plane for me.  Could it be?  Out of breath, but grateful, I profusely thanked the gate agent taking boarding passes for waiting for me.  "Oh, we are not waiting just for YOU," she drawled, "We're waiting for a LOT of people."  I should have reaffirmed my gratitude, but I was having trouble recalling many Delta flight connections in the last three decades that have waited on anybody. &nb[...]



7 Comments

2013-03-14T20:04:37.267-04:00

Delta Air Lines Comedy of ErrorsIt was just a one-day trip to Houston and back from Raleigh.  Four flight legs, outbound connecting to IAH through Memphis, with the returning connection through ATL.  On a darned expensive fare, too. How much could go wrong, really?  Yet Delta Air Lines put me through a day of hell.Everything appeared to begin well.  Figuring that a busy Monday morning at RDU right after the federal government “Sequester” had kicked in would probably back up the security lines, I arrived almost two hours early at 4:45 AM for my 6:40 AM departure.  Sure enough, even at that ungodly hour, the regular lines behind the TSA portals were horrendously long.  I went through the Elite line and still had to wait a few minutes, but nothing like the poor folks in the other rope lines.  Right on the opening time of 5:00 AM I was walking into the Delta Sky Club.First thing I did, as has been my decades-long habit, was to ask the agents if there were any earlier flight options to Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH).  Nope, they reported, every alternate connection was full.  Then I verified that my flight, DL 5332, to Memphiswas on time.  Everything was perfect, they said, smiling.  Having taken the usual precautions, I settled in to read the paper over a bagel and orange juice.At 6:00 AM I walked the short distance from the Sky Club to my gate to prepare for boarding.  I chatted up the gate agent.  She was chirpy and nice, and said she expected to begin the boarding process as soon as she checked out the aircraft to ensure the crew was ready.To her surprise, however, the crew wasn’t anywhere to be found.  She made a call and was told they were late getting to the airport from their hotel and were now snarled up in the long security line.  This was frustrating to those of us waiting, as we had had the foresight to get there early in order to be at the gate on time.  Why couldn’t the airline crew do the same?  After all, this wasn’t their first flight (we hoped), and this was their job.  We Delta Elite flyers grumbled amongst ourselves and waited.  As precious minutes ticked by, I felt the familiar anxiety growing that I’d miss my connection.  The gate agent continued to make the same excuse for the still-missing crew up until 6:30 AM.  They were stuck at security, she said.  We all wondered why the heck the crew didn’t simply cut the queue as airline crews are entitled to do?The gate agent was still saying the crew was lost at security when she got a call from Delta Operations with news that the crew was in Atlanta and would not be arriving RDU until about 9:00 AM.  This meant, of course, that I’d miss my Memphisconnection by about three hours.  The gate agent sheepishly made that announcement, and then she literally threw a bunch of Delta disruption cards up on her counter for anyone to grab so they could call and rebook themselves.What the hell?  How could the gate agent not have been informed until 10 minutes before flight time that the crew was hundreds of miles away?  How could the Delta Sky Club staff not have known from their screens that the flight was going to be three hours late when I asked at 5:00 AM?This one-day trip was for a 90 minute business meeting in Houston at 1:00 PM.  Getting there late would have negated the entire purpose of the trip, and I knew I had to work hard to make an alternate plan that would get me to IAH by about 11:00 AM, or else the trip was moot.  Therefore I rushed back to the Delta Sky Club to obtain the assistance of the two Delta agents there.  By now it was closing in on 7:00 AM, and I knew I didn’t have much time.Turns out another Delta flight also had problems (a cancellation to Baltimore), and there was a line of Elites[...]



1 Comments

2013-02-20T21:07:24.610-05:00

U.S. Air Travel:  The More Things Change...Well, you know the rest.  Then and now:  Is there really much difference?  Or are domestic U.S. air travel's differences so subtle and incremental over time that we just don't notice it, like the old saw about the frog swimming in the cooking pot full of cold water being slowly brought to a boil until...dinner!OK, I admit that my recent experiences in the air over the good old USA have been mostly on Delta Air Lines and on American Airlines (soon to be US Airways in sheep's clothing).  I've also flown a few segments on AirTran (Southwest in drag), and on staid old Southwest itself.  But I have avoided United like the plague since the unholy marriage with Continental, and likewise US Airways since they emerged from their satanic union with America West.  And I'm also not flying every week these days, thank goodness, but I think I'm airborne enough to offer some opinions about "then" and now. My summary opinion is that not a lot of things have changed that much, with one exception.  Sure, the flight attendants' outfits keep morphing into new colors and styles, and aircraft interiors and seat covers look different.  Most meals are gone, of course, even in First Class.  In coach you can forget it.  Bring your own, or buy on board, or fast for Lent.  Delta's premium liquor selections, which peaked in the 1980s and then declined, seem to have improved recently (if you like that sort of thing).  For instance, their mini-bottles of gin are now Bombay Sapphire in real glass, a charming throwback, and single malt Scotch has been restored, too.  Yes, this is a trivial thing, but it's an important creature comfort for me.  On a recent Delta ATL/LAX flight to attend a cousin's 80th birthday, I enjoyed two delicious Bombay Sapphire G&Ts with fresh lime before drifting off for a snooze--and that was in coach, albeit Economy Comfort seating.Speaking of which, the addition of what American used to call "More Room Throughout Coach," now dubbed Economy Comfort by Delta and some variant name elsewhere, is also a nice change.  That is, if you can get into those seats.  They aren't any wider, but the extra legroom makes them seem much less claustrophobic.  Who wants the seat in front of you slammed back within inches of your nose?  Doesn't happen in Economy Comfort, though if you get stuck next to some big fat fatty, I admit the experience is as dreadful as ever.(Footnote:  I'm a lifetime Gold on AA because of my Million Miler status with them, a status that allows me "free" access to American's equivalent to Economy Comfort, but only for 2013.  After that, I have to pay for the privilege like the peons, while AA's Platinums and Executive Platinums will continue to book the comfier rows gratis.  Doesn't seem fair at all.  Thus I won't be flying AA starting in 2014 unless there's no alternative.  As a lifetime Platinum over at Delta, meanwhile, I will continue to have access to the Economy Comfort inventory without paying extra even on international flights.)Maybe the biggest pre-flight change from earlier decades is that most air fares have skyrocketed as airlines finally realized that by throttling back on capacity until demand exceeded supply, they could charge pretty much what they want to and fill every seat on every flight, even on midweek flights between two podunk cities.  At the same time most airlines have leaned out their spare aircraft even at hubs--you know, the ones hanging out on the tarmac used to replaced broken airplanes or very late inbound flights.  They don't have as many spare crews loitering around hubs, either.  The unintended consequence of these two factors (few or no empty seats and few spare planes/crew[...]



5 Comments

2013-01-25T21:42:48.216-05:00

Fawlty in SonomaIf, like me, you are a Fawlty Towers fan, then you treasure the meager 12 episodes than ran on the BBC starting in 1975.  Written by and starring Monty Python's John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth, the show also featured famed English actor Andrew Sachs as a hapless Spanish waiter.  In the farcical series, tense, rude Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) and his bossy wife Sybil run the fictional Fawlty Towers hotel on the sea at Torquay (South Devon in England).  Mr. Fawlty appears to despise most of his guests, without regard to whether they are normal or demanding.  The British Film Institute (all industry professionals) voted Fawlty Towers the best British TV series of all time in 2000.I can understand the accolade.  Fawlty Towers is available as a complete DVD boxed set, and every episode is hilarious.  Basil Fawlty, exercising his deep loathing for hotel guests, rains down a torrent of misery upon himself and everyone.  John Cleese said in interviews that he based his character on a real-life experience with just such a curmudgeon at a small hotel he visited similar to Fawlty Towers. I've often wondered what it would be like to run into a Mr. Fawlty, but I mostly stay at large chain hotels where the HR departments have been careful to screen out candidates fraught with misanthropic tendencies for customer-facing positions.However, on a recent two-night stay at a small B&B in the vicinity of Healdsburg, California (Sonoma County), I finally came across Fawlty in the flesh, this time in female form.  I won't name names or call out the exact B&B, but the stories are true and accurate.This is the same expensive B&B I mentioned in my post last week.  The normal rate is an eye-popping $350 per night (I mean, after all, it's just a B&B), but my San Francisco friends' wine club membership entitled us to half price.  It still seemed expensive to me at $175 a night. My three friends and I arrived at the B&B in question two days after Christmas.  It was late afternoon and very cold.  We were tired from the drive up from San Francisco and from the several Sonoma wineries we'd visited along the way.  Our hostess and her husband, the owners, at first greeted us warmly.  Then one of my friends, a charming man loved by all, erred slightly in pronouncing the first name of our hostess.  "Thank you, Laura," he said, acknowledging receipt of his room key."No," she said sharply, staring intently at him with pursed lips, "It's Laura."  Her smile had vanished.I could have sworn she said, "Laura," but it was obviously not right.My friend asked her how to spell it."L-U-R-A," she said, still staring at him with a frown, as if he had broken wind."Oh, Lura," said my friend in a friendly tone.  "That's an unusual spelling."  He'd meant to break the curious tension.But his effort failed.  Lura said nothing, just continued to stare at him, obviously unhappy with his offhand remark about her name.  Her frown deepened, and the room felt chillier.  I could see from the creases around her mouth that it was a well-practiced look.  We shrank from her presence to find our rooms.We all remarked on the creepy incident, but didn't think more of it until the following morning.  My nice-guy friend, whose name is Ken, went out for an early morning walk and fell flat on his face, breaking his nose.  He showed up at my door a few minutes later with a handful of bloody towels clutched to his face.  After collecting his wife, we were off to the ER.  Several x-rays and stitches later, we returned to the B&B.  It was just before 10:00 AM.Our fourth companion, whose name is Susan, had explained to Lura and her husband about K[...]



1 Comments

2013-01-17T17:23:33.936-05:00

Sick in Sonoma and San FranciscoSometimes what sounds like a good idea for a pleasure trip takes an unexpected turn.  My wife planned to visit her family in the Twin Cities, taking our kids with her, on Christmas Day for five nights.  She wanted me to go, too.  It sounded OK on the face of it.  That is, until I heard that it was going to be a lot like Chevy Chase's house in the movie Christmas Vacation:  Thirteen relatives bunking together with nowhere to go in the ice and snow, no rental car to take you there, and cots set up in the basement.  All the scene needed was a rusty RV in the driveway and Randy Quaid with a dog named "Snots."I politely demurred and instead planned my own mini-vacation separate from the family to visit good friends in San Francisco.  Another old friend I've known since childhood, now a Supreme Court justice in the State of Washington, decided to join us.  The four of us would drive up to Sonoma for a couple of days and nights to enjoy the wine country, an experience to be made especially delightful thanks to my San Francisco friends' memberships in a number of Sonoma wine clubs.My American Airlines connection on Christmas Day took me RDU/JFK.  I found it utterly bizarre to be at JFK on Christmas night waiting for AA177 to SFO, though I felt fortunate to have been upgraded.  The aircraft was a three-class 767, one of a peculiar dedicated fleet AA keeps just for Transcon service (JFK/LAX, JFL/SFO). On board it was like being in a time machine back to the 1990s.  The aircraft was fitted with two rows of ancient First Class seats in a 2-1-2 configuration, the ones that are real wide but don't recline fully flat.  This was followed by four or five rows of old style Business Class seats (just realized I didn't count the Business rows) in a 2-2-2 configuration.  I opted for seat 7G in the first row of Business.  The seats were quite narrow and cramped, but far better than coach, of course.  The plane wasn't full, so I had an empty seat beside mine which made the flight even more comfortable.I later learned from Joe Brancatelli that AA's three-class Transcon configurations are indeed about 20 years old and will be replaced in late 2013.Boarding Champagne was served (OK, the bubbly was from Spain, but it was tasty) in Business and First--a happy surprise--and a light snack was served en route which was edible if not memorable.  Flight attendants distributed Samsung tablets loaded with movies and the newest generation of Bose noise-cancelling headphones.  I had two books with me, too.With all those diversions, it was a fast six hours, or close to it.  Got in early to SFO but had to wait 30 minutes for a gate. Then it took another half hour to get from the gate to the Airtrain to the remote rental car facility. With no GPS in my Hertz car, I had a hard time finding the Hilton Union Square on O'Farrell Street in the dark and rain. But by the following morning early, I was up, showered, dressed, packed, and ready for our trip to Sonoma.  Because the weather was overcast, breezy, and chilly, I was too lazy to leave the hotel to find a restaurant for breakfast and made the mistake of eating in the Hilton's modest breakfast cafe.  Thirty dollars lighter after pancakes, bacon, and a Coke Zero, I squinted at the bill and was about to leave a tip despite the outrageous bill when I noticed that I'd been charged 17.5% already for "service."  Since when did hotels start adding service to bills for single diners?Another high cost was parking.  The night before when I'd arrived in the cold rain after being lost for a half hour the hotel had directed me to the self-park parking around back.  There I was told it would be[...]



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2013-01-10T08:22:41.144-05:00

St. John Bliss, Part 2:Paradise (Soon To Be) LostOn January 1, we received the following message from the good folks who run Maho Bay Eco-Camps on St. John:Dear Campers, Staff, and All Interested,We have just discovered that the property which Maho Bay Camps sits upon has officially been sold.  The only information that has been released, is that a direct sale to an unknown buyer took place on 12/27/2012 for $13,950,000.  No one is releasing any more details.  We do not know who they are or their intentions.  All we know is that we are only taking reservations until we close on May 15, 2013.  We will continue to update you as we find out more.We hope you have a blessed New Year and get to come visit us one last time.For reservations please call 1-800-392-9004After operating in harmony with the surrounding forest and beach since the 1970s, this simple paradise on St. John's premier beach is soon to be lost.  This was the view from our tent cabin A7 during our visit over Thanksgiving week:Its closure signals the end of inexpensive accommodation options on St. John.  Maho Bay Eco-Camps off-season rates are just $85 per night for each tent cabin like the one above.We were told that the original asking price for the property was $32 million.  Last we heard the price had been reduced to $19 million.  Yet it sold for just $14 mil, less than half off list.  It's the bad economy, they said.  But St. John is the place the 1% go to play.  It's all but immune from the economy.  I can't help but think that in future years people will wonder how this remarkable parcel of land sold so cheaply.Here's a view of Maho Bay Eco-Camps from the road on the distant  hill in the above photo looking back towards the camp:The white dots on the point are some of the tent cabins (including A7) sticking out from the surrounding forest.  That's Big Maho Bay on the right, the place described in my previous post as having excellent big turtle sightings as they feed on the short grass growing on the bottom.  Little Maho Bay is to the left of the point, and it's separated by another smaller point from Francis Bay, another great place to see big turtles.  Just barely visible over the top of the hill in the distance are the British Virgin Islands.  All these St. John beaches are pristine and beautiful.  I'm telling you:  This place is as close to paradise as one is likely to find on this earth.  Here's a view of Little Maho Bay with the Maho Bay Eco-Camps SCUBA boat just returning from a dive trip and the yellow island sloop"Pepper" in the distance:Thank goodness we made it back for one final visit. We are now looking into VRBO rentals elsewhere on St. John for a future trip, but we'll never find a deal like Maho Bay Eco-Camp again.Sad though we were, we nonetheless let the bliss sink thoroughly in and enjoyed all St. John had to offer.  Well, except for shopping and fine dining.  We opted for simpler forms of relaxation and leisure: snorkeling every day, sometimes twice a day, swimming, sailing on the "Pepper" to more remote snorkeling sites, driving into Cruz Bay for some barbecue pork, watching our son take a glass-blowing class and later a pottery class, and venturing to the Caribbean side of the island to eat some of Vie's scrumptious garlic fried chicken and conch fritters at Vie's Snack Shack:Life doesn't get much better than sipping a cold lager while chowing down on her delicious garlic chicken, though I did feel just a little bad for the bantams scurrying underfoot looking for a handout, wondering whether they might be tomorrow's meal for someone.The week went by too quickly, as vacations do when things go right.  In the[...]



2 Comments

2012-12-20T22:00:25.125-05:00

St. John Bliss, Part 1You gotta love St. John to make the effort to get there because it's not that easy.  As I wrote in my earlier post, visiting the island involves first flying to its larger sister in the U. S. Virgin Islands archipelago, St. Thomas (STT airport code).  Tiny, mountainous St. John has no airport even for itty-bitty planes.  Once on the ground in St. Thomas, one must get to a ferry terminal that offers service to St. John. Finally on St. John, despite it being just 13 miles long, you have to pay for expensive taxis or rental cars to get around.  There are few reasonably-priced accommodations.  Food and drink are not cheap, and the one gas station on the island commands a hefty premium when refilling a rental car.  But it's still worth the trouble, time, and expense; there are no more beautiful beaches on earth than along the north coast, and I've seen a great many of the world's finest beaches.Back to the ferry options from St. Thomas to St. John:  There are two ferry terminals, one in downtown Charlotte Amalie which offers intermittent service, and the second in Red Hook which offers service at the top of each hour from early morning up to midnight most days.  Charlotte Amalie is a short cab ride from the airport, but the ferry is costlier and takes longer, not to mention fewer daily sailings.  We prefer the certainty of the hourly ferries from Red Hook, so we shell out the $15 per person (including luggage) for the sometimes long cab ride from STT airport to Red Hook.  In bad traffic that route can take over an hour, though 40-45 minutes is normal.  Even if we arrive just after a ferry has departed, our island holiday starts at the bar there drinking a couple of rum punches or an El Presidente pilsener while waiting 50 minutes for the next ferry.  Heck, you can even bring your booze or beer aboard the boat if you ask the bartender for a plastic cup.For our recent visit over Thanksgiving week, however, we arrived way too late to make the last Red Hook ferry, forcing us to stay overnight in a Best Western at the airport.  Having seen the property on previous trips, I knew we could walk there and save a cab fare.  In the end, though, I showed my ignorance by doing so.We were tired from the long flights and hoofed it around an unnecessary loop for twenty minutes before finally departing the airport.  Once on the exit road that parallels the single runway and looking back, we realized that we could have saved ourselves fifteen minutes by cutting through the parking lot.  Nonetheless, my wife and I were proud of ourselves for saving a few bucks and demonstrating to our two kids (ages 13 and 9) how to be resourceful.The gaudy Best Western sign soon hove into view through my sweat-stained glasses, and, glad to have made it, I stopped in the lobby to catch my breath before showing my reservation to the single desk clerk on duty late at night.  I knew something was amiss when he started puzzling over my name and began punching his computer keyboard.    With apologies, he told us that we were at the wrong Best Western property."What?!" I exclaimed.  "There's only one Best Western, and this is IT!"  The clerk patiently explained that this was a common problem.  In fact there are two Best Western Hotels near the STT airport; ours was down the road another mile or two, he wasn't sure just how far, and his property was slammed.  He even offered to drive us there, seeing how tired, exhausted, and sweaty we all were.  But just then a big family arrived from the airport in a cab and had to be checked in, and so the clerk was distracted.  We opted to keep walking.An[...]



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2012-12-06T22:16:43.187-05:00

Getting There Was Half the FunIn the days when the great North Atlantic ocean liners steamed between Europe and New York City, getting there was indeed half the fun.  Voyages lasted fours days to a week, and those who could afford a First Class stateroom made lifetime memories hobnobbing  with counts, baronesses, the occasional crown prince, and top business tycoons while feasting on unending courses of Sevruga and Beluga caviar from the Black Sea, the finest French pâté, and bottomless cases of Krug, Bollinger, and other Premier Cru Champagnes.  John Maxtone-Graham's 1972 The Only Way To Cross is the definitive tribute to the era of trans-Atlantic steamer service from the 1840s to the end in the early 1970s.  Maxtone-Graham's tome captures the magic of the times; it is factual, witty, and utterly fascinating.  If, like me, you have spent decades being unceremoniously herded into narrow aluminum tubes that hurtle through the air with minimalist service en route, you will read it and weep.  (Amazon sells used copies of The Only Way To Cross for as little as $4.00 delivered; I highly recommend it.)The enigmatic Henry J. Tillman is credited with quipping that "The saying 'Getting there is half the fun' became obsolete with the advent of commercial airlines."  Boeing's 707 and 747 certainly killed the Atlantic ocean liners, and travel comfort and style has never been the same since.  Not even Singapore Air's vaulted First Class service is worthy of a comparative description.These days my air travel wishes are severely practical:  Just get me and my family there in one piece and on the advertised, with minimal hassle at the airports.  As little as I now ask, it doesn't often happen.  But it did recently on bankrupt American Airlines through two of its hubs, and over the busy Thanksgiving week, no less.  This seemingly mundane accomplishment is worth a tip of my hat in gratitude.For our week in St. John, I booked AA from RDU through Miami to St. Thomas (STT) going out, and STT/JFK/RDU returning.  The only trouble on the entire trip was at home before we left.  I could not get the AA.com system to print out one of our four boarding passes for the second leg (MIA/STT).  Oddly, the system checked us all in and printed all four boarding passes for the first leg, but only three boarding passes for the second leg.  A phone call to the Exec Platinum desk didn't get the job done, either.  I had to wait until we were through security at RDU and in the Admirals Club before an AA agent could coax the last boarding pass to print.The staff at the Admirals Clubs in both RDU and MIA were cordial and helpful, as were the gate agents in both airports and the on-board crews on both legs.  Both flights were over-booked, and yet both left on time and arrived early (to MIA) or on time (to STT).  En route every coach passenger was served twice.  The seats on the 737 to Miami(10CDEF) were very cramped, and row 10 had no window, but the friendly flight attendants and early arrival more than made up for the temporary discomfort. By contrast, we were in the "Main Cabin Extra" section (years ago AA called it "More Room Throughout Coach") between MIA and STT in seats 13CDEF with loads of leg room.  Again, the friendly on-board staff and keeping to the schedule made the flight a pleasant experience.Homeward bound on the Sunday after Thanksgiving after a wonderful week on St. John, I was concerned that bankrupt American's operation might melt down, especially since we were connecting through JFK, notorious for slowdowns and misery.  Happily, AA 404 was dead on time leaving St. Thomas and arriving K[...]



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2012-11-29T12:34:37.804-05:00

Paradise Reconfirmed: St. John, U. S. Virgin IslandsLast Saturday while en route from St. Thomas to JFK on an American Airlines flight, I struck up a conversation with a woman of my vintage (mid-sixties) seated next to me.  Like my family and me, she was going home after a week on St. John, the smallest of the three United States Virgin Islands, which sits just a few miles from St. Thomas.  It turned out she was extremely well-traveled, also just like me and my family, and we got into an enthusiastic discussion about places we'd been and enjoyed.  We agreed that we were especially keen on South Africa (notably the Kruger National Park) and Africa in general.  She offered great advice for visiting the mountain gorilla park in Rawanda.  Soon our conversation turned to various tropical islands and countries with exceptional beaches and reefs for snorkeling: Fiji, Hawai'i, Moorea (Tahiti), the Seychelles (she'd been; I hadn't), Mauritius (I'd been; she hadn't), Thailand, Great Barrier Reef (Australia), Belize, Costa Rica, Barbados, Cancun, Grand Cayman, The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, St. John, and others.Suddenly she turned to me and said, "You know, I guess I never really thought about it, but I don't believe there are any more beautiful beaches on earth that are so accessible for swimming and snorkeling than Maho Bay, Trunk Bay, and Cinnamon Bay on St. John.  Do you?"I had to admit she was probably right.  I can make a great case for the sheer beauty of other beaches.  The entire Pacific coast of the United States is breathtakingly beautiful, but I wouldn't call even the Southern California beaches ideal for swimming, let alone snorkeling.  Rio's Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are gorgeous, but they are more a backdrop for beautiful bodies than they are family swim beaches.  Ditto for the French and Italian Rivieras.  One can make a strong argument in favor of my native North Carolina's Outer Banks beaches or the white sugar sands of Florida's Redneck Riviera, both of which are great for swimming. But none of those are good for swimming AND snorkeling.  At Maho, Cinnamon, and Trunk Bays on St. John, the beaches are tropical picture post cards of brilliant white sands, crystal clear blue water, and swaying palm trees, all framed by the steep green mountainous terrain that defines the island.  Within a few feet of the water's edge, fish and other sea life teem in abundance among a variety of soft and hard coral.  If tropical island natural beauty, swimming, snorkeling, relaxing, and reading a good book while sipping a rum punch appeal to you, I recommend St. John.  Of course there are some catches; nothing's easy, after all, let alone inexpensive.  St. John is mainly a destination for the one percent.  That said, we have stayed three times now at the cheapest place on the island, Maho Bay Eco-Camp.  At $85/night (off season), it can't be beat for economy-minded families who don't mind their rustic tent cabins and communal ablution blocks.  Prices for St. John accommodation options beyond the eco-camp tend to jump into the stratosphere and beyond.  One can easily pay $12,000-25,000 per week for a fancy "villa" perched on one of the island's many steep mountains with a spectacular, if far-removed, view of the ocean.  Prices for places modestly tucked into valleys with no water view are considerably less.  In either case, however, beach access is dependent upon having a rental car.  Rental car agencies are all local on St. John (no Avis or Hertz), but my experiences with several have been good.  A Ford Escape rents for [...]



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2012-11-01T19:13:37.217-04:00

The Calm (Weekend) Before the StormMonths ago my wife and I planned a late October family weekend in New York City based on a teacher workday Friday on our kids' school calendar.  Flying up from Raleigh on a Friday morning rather than Saturday adds a third day to enjoy America's greatest city.  Little did we know that it would be the weekend before Frankenstorm devastated the metro area.Looking at the photos and videos of Hurricane Sandy's destruction and the inundation of lower Manhattan this week, we couldn't help remarking again and again: "We were just there last week where that picture was taken."  "That's the subway line we rode to Chinatown."  "We walked down that street now strewn with debris and mud just last Saturday."Our trip was remarkably laid back and relaxing from start to finish.  Despite pouring rain in Raleigh and New York on Friday, October 19, our cramped American Eagle CRJ was on time leaving RDU and arriving LaGuardia Airport.  When does that ever happen on a flight to or from LGA, let alone when the weather is bad?We were stunned, however, by the mobs of passengers snaking through the security line at 5:50 AM at Raleigh/Durham.  Even with my Elite line privileges, things moved slowly.  Good thing we had arrived early (for just this contingency).  When we reached the extremely busy TSA personnel working the portals, I was pleased at how cheerful and professional they all seemed.  It's amazing how an upbeat mood can make the security screen experience so much more tolerable.  Once our plane landed and pulled into its Concourse C gate at LGA, AA quickly and efficiently retrieved the gate-checked luggage, including ours, and we were heading for the exit by 8:45 AM.  Rather than take a cab into Manhattan we had decided to make an adventure of it by taking public transportation.  We first located the MTA ticket machines (in the next terminal) and purchased four $10 Metro tickets (which give you a bonus: $10.70 worth of travel).  Of course my family of four needed four tickets, and I was perplexed that I was prohibited from using the same credit card for more than two consecutive transactions to buy the Metro Cards--no doubt a security measure.  I had to insert a second credit card for the third and fourth Metro cards.Our NY Metro Map indicated that we'd need to take the M60 bus from LaGuardia over to Astoria Boulevard ($2.25 each for the bus ride) and then walk a half block to the N/Q subway.  Our M60 bus driver told us the Metro Card would automatically know that we were transferring from the bus to the subway and would not charge us again.  But he was wrong.  Another $2.25 was deducted from each card for the N line subway.  An MTA supervisor later told me that the transfer DOES work going from the subway to the bus, but NOT from the bus to subway.  He just scratched his head and laughed when I asked him to explain the logic of that rule and admitted it was nonsense.Thus the trip from LGA to Midtown Manhattan cost $4.50 per person times four people = $18, still a big savings over a taxi ($30-50).  We boarded the train and clanked into the city intending to get off at 49th Street, which was just a block from our hotel.  However, it was raining, and our train stopped permanently at 59th Street on account of a stalled train ahead of us.  We were told it was one of the new subway trainsets that stopped working (as opposed to our train, which was almost 100 years old) and that the new ones frequently break down when it rains.I will say this about the MTA:  They kept us better informe[...]



6 Comments

2012-10-24T10:54:41.557-04:00

A Marriott is a Marriott is a MarriottUpon arrival to Washington Union Station on a recent conference trip to D.C., I found my way outside, waited five minutes in line, and caught a cab to my destination, the Washington Marriott at the corner of M and 22nd Streets ($16, including tip, not bad for PM rush hour). The hotel sits in the heart of NW Washington, where all the D.C. money is. The many billions spent every year by lobbyists are dispensed on nearby K Street, and you can almost hear the legislative cash registers ringing from the corner of M and 22nd.Still, there's nothing special about the Washington Marriott. It's a cookie-cutter urban property with the same damn tiny rooms that Marriott is famous for. Check-in was swift, and the clerk accommodated my request to change my preassigned room from a lower floor to the eighth floor, room 855. Sure enough, though the room was nicely appointed, it was small. The chair under the narrow and wobbly desk could not be moved out to sit in without hitting the bed and blocking passage to get to the windows. I liked the flatscreen HD TV, though I hardly had time to watch more than 20-30 minutes a night. There is a narrow and almost unusable space between the bed and the window where Marriott has nonetheless crammed in a lamp. I've been on sailboats with bigger heads (bathrooms) than the one in room 855. The sink didn't even face the mirror because it was forced into one corner. The tub/shower was roomy enough, but the oversized rainwater showerhead had little water volume, and the outward shower curtain bulge that's now standard in every hotel room caused the shower curtain to bow out over the toilet seat because the toilet was installed so close to the tub by necessity. The closet by the room door was miniscule; it reminded me of the narrow closets on airplanes.All this lux for a mere $331 per night, the generous and special conference rate! I was assured by Marriott reservation agents when I booked the room that this was half the rack rate. Oh, and by the way, it's another $13 per day (plus tax) for wifi. I used my BlackBerry instead. Paying $662 for two nights in a plain-vanilla Marriott made me sour enough without having to fork over more for a commonplace product that's included in the room rate most places. A hotel that charges guests for the Internet these days makes as much sense as charging extra for towels and soap--but maybe I shouldn't give them any ideas.Marriott's snazzier brand, the Ritz-Carlton, is just a half block away on the other side of the street. I decided to treat myself to another visit to its beautiful bar, done up with proper dark wood and muted lighting. I enjoyed Champagne and cheese there two years ago, and I wanted a repeat experience. The menu seemed not to have changed, with a bottle of Taittinger nonvintage brut at $80 and a cheese plate for less than $20. Knowing I couldn't drink 750 ml of fine French Champagne without falling asleep in my chair, I opted for two glasses of the Taittinger at $16 per. The Champagne and the cheese went well together, as usual, and I was soon hoofing it back to the Marriott. Out of curiosity I stopped in the bar there to check out their bill of fare. I was amused to find the Marriott offering a bottle of Mumm California champagne at $60 for the bottle, or $13 per glass. Mumm made in Napa is fine, but it's far inferior to Taittinger made in France, and yet the Ritz price for the Taittinger was a great bargain by comparison to the Marriott's price for Mumm. I didn't order any.Both nights in the hotel were quiet on the eighth floor, and I slept well.  The HVAC[...]



3 Comments

2012-10-16T17:19:51.043-04:00

Amtrak ReduxWhen planning my October 9-11 trip to Washington to attend a Railway Age rail conference, I considered three options for getting there from Raleigh: slogging it out on I-95 with the gajillions of others on the road; flying to Reagan or Dulles; or taking the train.  Two years ago, attending the same conference, I used Amtrak going north and flew home.  I recall the train trip favorably.Should I drive?  Certainly the horrendous traffic hasn't improved since 2010 in and around the District of Columbia, a fact directly related to the two wars plus domestic so-called "homeland" security:  Government and private sector businesses have flowered on account of Defense Department and TSA spending to feed the wars and domestic jitters.  And darned if all those folks getting rich off gov'ment contracts didn't bring their cars with them.  The result is that no one in their right mind would volunteer to drive I-95 north of Richmond these days.  The last time I did it I swore I'd never do it again, and I am a veteran of Los Angeles, NYC, and Chicago traffic congestion who has never made such a personal pledge driving elsewhere in those cities.  Washington traffic now rates among the worst metro areas in the country.Which brings me to the flying option.  Anybody notice how airfares have skyrocketed this year?  The distance from Raleigh to Washington is less than 300 miles, and the cost to fly there used to be in the $100-125 range one way.  Snagging such a reasonable fare is rare now.  My wife flew to Washington for a one-day conference recently on an advance purchase, nonrefundable ticket, and her company paid an astonishing $561.  Nor could I find any reasonable fares for the midweek dates I needed.Amtrak certainly looked like the best price option at just $122 round trip, which included a surcharge for Business Class on the northbound leg.  Train travel is also a lot less stressful than driving, and it's far more comfortable than a coach seat on an airplane.  So I booked a train north to Washington (train 80, the Carolinian) which left Raleigh on Tuesday at 10:25 AM and was scheduled to arrive Washington Union Station at 4:37 PM.  Returning after my conference ended at lunch on Thursday, I caught a 3:00 PM train (number 91, the Silver Star) scheduled to get to Raleigh at about 9:00 PM.My decision to use Amtrak proved to be a good one.  Amtrak train 80, the Carolinian, left right on time at 10:25 AM.  My Business Class seat was comfortable, cushy, and with tons of what airlines catch "pitch" (the distance between seatbacks).  It was better than a domestic First Class airplane seat.  The friendly and solicitous Amtrak hostess attending the Business Class car promptly offered me complimentary juices, water, and soft drinks, and even brought cups with ice to accompany them.  She kept me refilled the entire trip.The train crew broadcast regular updates of our progress, including reasons for stops and slowdowns, and they were friendly in answering questions.  I opened my laptop and discovered Amtrak's complimentary wifi service worked great (and without a glitch all the way to DC).  The car was maintained in great shape, though the toilets could have been cleaner.  There was plenty of overhead room for my suitcase and briefcase.At lunchtime I found that the adjacent Cafe Car had a decent selection of microwave sandwiches (as good or better than m[...]



4 Comments

2012-08-31T07:29:13.578-04:00

The Democratic National Convention in Charlotte:  So Close, and Yet So Far AwayMost everyone is probably aware that the Democratic National Convention will be held next week in Charlotte, North Carolina. It concludes with a primetime stemwinder from President Obama Thursday night.  As a Democratic Party Precinct Chair in Raleigh, less than three hours by car from Charlotte, I was thrilled to get my special “Community Credential” to hear President Obama speak next Thursday night in Charlotte.  It looks real cool: a shiny blue plastic thing with a chrome finish punched to hang around my neck.  It even has an individual bar code which I used to "activate" my credential online.Sounds like a great chance to see the President speak in person (a rare occurrence in anyone's lifetime), and just three hours away, right?  Yet, after looking into the logistics a bit deeper, I don’t think I'm going.  Why not?  Well, because it sounds like it will be a fricking nightmare:· President Obama speaks at 9:00 PM Thursday night at the Bank of America Stadium.· If I ride on one of the Democratic Party/Obama campaign buses, the buses will leave Raleigh at 3:00 AM Thursday morning.· Whether driving my own car or riding the Party bus, all vehicles coming in from the north and east will be forced to stop and park at the Motor Speedway in Concord (30 miles north of Charlotte) where a shuttle service will transport people to the Bank of America stadium in Charlotte.  I was told this is by order of the Secret Service.  People coming in from the south and west will be stopped at Carowinds just over the border in South Carolina.· People will be dropped at the stadium on one of the 150 shuttle buses to queue up with thousands of people already in line who arrived there Wednesday night. Any folding chairs or umbrellas I might have brought to be comfortable during the long hours of waiting become the property of the Secret Service when the gates are finally opened.· Gates to get in the stadium open at 1:00 PM. By then people will have been waiting in line since early morning if arriving from Raleigh (like me). People who arrived the previous night to wait in line will have been waiting for 15 hours or more.· Food and beverages will be available for sale inside the stadium, but it’s still another 8 hours before the President speaks.· Afterward the event finally concludes (presumably after 10:00 PM), shuttles will transport the out-of-town people back to their cars or buses in Concord.  This is expected to take until the wee hours of Friday morning considering the inevitable long lines for the shuttles. People driving back to Raleigh (or returning by bus) should expect to get home between 3:00 and 5:00 AM Friday.· Therefore, it’s essentially a 24 hour marathon with no sleep.· The most disconcerting information I was told is that the Obama campaign is distributing 3-4 times as many tickets as there are seats in the stadium to assure there are no empty seats for TV coverage. When the stadium is full, the Secret Service will turn away any still in line. Therefore, I could make the trip to Concord, and then to Charlotte, wait in line for hours, and still not get into the stadium to hear the speech. If I choose to ride the Democratic Party/Obama campaign bus, presumably it would not return to Raleigh until after the President’s speech, so I’d be stuck there with no way to get home until early Friday morning.Since [...]



7 Comments

2012-06-21T09:35:58.224-04:00

Delta Dumps My SeatsReserved in January, but disappeared with no notice or warning in June.  Was it because of the introduction of Economy Comfort on many Delta flights?As a Delta Five Million Miler (5.3 million, actually), I enjoy Lifetime Platinum Elite status.  Since 2008 I have successfully transitioned from a three decades long full-time-travel-every-week career to satisfying work at home, but I still travel quite a bit, including on vacations.  I don't get many upgrades these days, but my Delta Platinum status is very useful to gain access to choice seats in coach when making reservations and when boarding planes.My family of four was scheduled to fly to St. Thomas from RDU on June 9 for a week at Maho Bay Eco-camps on St. John (a short ferry ride away), a trip I planned back in early January using Delta SkyMiles Award seats.  As a Delta Platinum, I was able to reserve good seats in the first few rows of Economy, and I printed out the webpages that showed our selections.I had a grueling work schedule on the Friday before we left, and didn't get home until almost 10:00 PM.  I immediately went to the Delta website to check in and print our boarding passes for the early Saturday morning flights.  When I did, I was dumbfounded to learn that Delta had dumped all our reserved seats on all four flight segments (Raleigh-Atlanta-St. Thomas).  Every flight was, of course, fully booked, and I was unable to get any seat assignments on line.Furious and worried, I phoned the Delta Elite line, and asked what happened.  The short version is that several layers of agents and supervisors couldn't help me at all--and this was the Elite line. I was told that they weren't sure why the seats vanished.  Finally the truth:  One supervisor was candid enough to tell me that Delta dumped all preexisting seat assignments when they introduced Economy Comfort to their domestic fleet.  But when that change was made to their reservation system, Delta failed to send email notices to affected passengers that their seat assignments had disappeared, let alone assign new ones to replace them.I was flabbergasted.  But that's always your Elite flyers, I said, because that's the only group of passengers who has early access to those first few rows of Coach.  Why would Delta do that?  Why didn't they at least notify passengers when they did?  Why didn't they reinstate similar seat assignments?  All I got was a sigh from the Delta supervisor and an acknowledgement that it was stupid, extremely stupid.On a different call later that evening, a less candid supervisor stone-walled and accused me of not having had any seats assigned, essentially saying it was entirely my fault.  He backed off when I read off the seats I had reserved in January on all four segments.The most astonishing discovery, however, was that no agent or supervisor I spoke with--all well-trained in handling Elite problems--was able to do anything at all other than document the record and offer profuse apologies.  They all told me their hands were tied, that not a single seat was available to assign on any of the four flights, let alone four seats together for my family of four. When I explained that I couldn't have my eight year old daughter seated alone many rows away from us, they just said, "I'm sorry."  Ditto for my please to have our seventh grader son seated next to at least one parent.  I tried several times up until midnight calling back because I was so upset and worrie[...]



0 Comments

2012-05-16T21:47:00.172-04:00

Surprising Contrasts Among Five Recent Hotel ExperiencesThese last few weeks of travel have taken me to York, Pennsylvania, to suburban Pittsburgh, to Nashville (twice), to downtown Cleveland, and to the heart of the CBD (Central Business District) on the riverfront back in Pittsburgh (locals refer to the area as "The Triangle").  I was in and out of five very different hotels.  Some of the properties were my choices (the cheapest ones), and some hotels were dictated by the folks who planned the travel in support of the business trips.  My stays were limited to just one or two nights in each property in fairly quick succession.  This gave me a chance to reflect and contrast hotel experiences derived from those recent trips at a humble Holiday Inn Express in York, an even more modest Comfort Inn in suburban Pittsburgh, a fancy Hyatt in downtown Cleveland, an even fancier Renaissance in downtown Pittsburgh, and an airport Radisson in Nashville.  It was surprising to me which hotel’s service and value for money came out on top.Before getting started, I have to hang my head in shame and admit that, for the first time since hotel chains began their loyalty programs, I am not an elite member of any.  My fall from grace as a perennial Hilton Diamond, for instance, was painful; alas, I am just a peon now when I step into a hotel lobby.  No one turns on a radiant smile any more for me at the elite check-in front desk counter and exclaims, "Welcome back, Mr. Allen!  Your upgraded room, free Internet, and complimentary lounge access are all ready for you!"  Instead, they scrutinize my credit card and driver's license closely before squinting up at me to be sure the person standing in front of them is the old balding fat guy in the photo.Point being, the impressions I am about to describe don't include any elite perks or freebies.  I am Joe Everyman now.PriceThree of the hotels charged at or just above $100 per night (before tax): The Nashville Airport Radisson and the suburban Pittsburgh Comfort Inn wanted $99 per night, while the brand spanking new Holiday Inn Express on the western edge of York, PA was $109.  Both the Hyatt in Cleveland (at the Arcade) and the Renaissance on the river in Pittsburgh demanded almost three times as much at $279-289 per night (again, before tax).  Value for money WINNER: Holiday Inn Express in York, PA.ParkingParking was free at the Radisson, Comfort Inn, and Holiday Inn Express.  Not so at the Hyatt and the Renaissance; however, nearby parking garages charged a modest $10/day.  No winners or losers.Internet AccessFree at every hotel except the Hyatt at the Arcade in downtown Cleveland, which wanted about $10 per day for it.  However, when I politely complained to the front desk, they discretely handed me a code for gratis Internet access for my entire stay.  I was happy to note that the Renaissance on the riverfront in downtown Pittsburgh, a premier Marriott property, did not charge for Internet access.  LOSER: Hyatt Cleveland at the Arcade.Complimentary Breakfast?I encountered the standard, unimaginative, el cheapo complimentary "breakfast buffet" at the Holiday Inn Express and the Comfort Inn where the safest bet is always cold cereal and yogurt.  Nothing to write home about.  At the Hyatt and at the Renaissance they never heard of any "complimentary" meal, breakfast or otherwise, but they were darned polite refuting the possibility when I inquire[...]



1 Comments

2012-05-03T15:32:12.479-04:00

Tips on Paying Before and During a Trip to the Kruger National Park, South AfricaMy three recent blog posts on our March-April trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa generated inquiries from some folks who are interested in planning a trip there.  A lot of the questions concerned what and how to pay in advance, and the other big question was how to pay for out-of-pocket items once in South Africa and in the Kruger. Booking the Kruger is easily done through the excellent South African National Park (SANP) website.  SANP manages twenty parks in South Africa, of which the Kruger is the jewel.  There are a number of very good-looking websites with "Kruger" in the name that sound "official" but are not.  The one and only official SANP website for the Kruger National Park is: http://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/.  There you can experiment with dates for booking various camps within the Kruger and then actually book them.  When the booking requests have been confirmed, you'll be sent an email with an invoice stated in South African Rand (called SAR, or just Rand) for payment.  I recommend using your favorite credit card.  It will be charged for the amount shown in Rand, and you'll get charged in dollars after your credit card issuer has processed the charge and the then-existing Rand-dollar exchange rate.At the time of writing, the Rand-dollar rate was running about 7.7 SAR = 1.00 USD.  The rate you get may vary considerably according to the credit card issuer's policies, so check to see who promises the best rate before selecting the card to use.  At the bottom of this post, I've included an analysis of exchange rates and fees charged by four different credit cards.Once in South Africa there are a number of companies at the airport open to change your travelers checks or cash in local currency into Rands.  I usually head for the American Express money exchange window because they do not charge a fee on top of the exchange rate for Amex cardholders.  None of the services offer particularly good rates, however, so name your own poison.Another option is to find the nearest ATM and use your bankcard to withdraw Rands.  Depending upon your bank, the rate you get and the "foreign exchange fee" charged will vary, but usually the rate is better than one of the cash/travelers checks money change booths.  If you are headed to the Kruger, it's a good idea to have Rands equivalent to a few hundreds dollars in your pocket before you get there.  Some of the Kruger's camps have ATM machines, but you can't always count on them working.  Better to have the cash with you.Inside the Kruger National Park (and most everywhere else in South Africa), all the usual credit cards are accepted.  Kruger camp shops, gas stations, and stores accept major credit cards (Amex, Visa, MC, and Discover), but as I reported in one of my posts, sometimes the credit card machines are busted.  When that happens, cash is indispensable.  Sometimes, too, credit card transactions are slow to process, and cash is a quicker way to pay if you are in a hurry.  I always pay cash at the gas stations for diesel fuel, for instance.On our recent visit to the Kruger I used four different credit cards to pay for food, fuel, and odds and ends as an experiment to see which credit card gave me the best rate.  The cards were:  American Express Platinum Card, Wells Fargo Platinum Visa, AAdvantag[...]



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2012-04-26T10:31:23.419-04:00

Days 4 through 10 in the Kruger National ParkNote: This post completes the story of my family's recent 10 day self-drive safari in South Africa's Kruger National ParkDay 4 - April 1Cooler (20 C, which is 68 F) this April 1st morning at Letaba Camp with a fierce, unrelenting wind that made it feel much colder. Ruth & I bundled up for the first time in long pants & light jackets for our 6:00 AM game drive, again leaving the kids to sleep in--their choice. And also their loss, as within 2 kms of the gate we watched a well-fed mama hyena (her tummy was distended; I hated to think what rotten carcass therein) coaxing 2 of her young out of a culvert under the road they'd made into their den. I'm glad hyenas don't live in Raleigh culverts since they are very fond of eating humans when presented the opportunity. A bit later we were surprised & awed to come across 3 White Rhinos moving together just off the road. We stopped to admire them, & for some reason I thought of Raleigh City Councilor Thomas Crowder. Maybe because his hide is at least as thick as those covering the 3 magnificent beasts lumbering off into the bush.  Or perhaps because Thomas is just as unstoppable.We spied 3 Blacked-backed Jackels loping across an open area not far beyond where we'd seen the rhinos.  Before we returned to our Letaba Camp rondavel at 7:30 AM, we'd also seen wildebeest, zebra, impala, and more than 50 baboons foraging. Not bad for a quick 90 minute game drive. 3 Black-backed JackelsYoung Will & Clara contented themselves with looking at the rhino & hyena pictures.  Maybe tomorrow they can drag themselves out of the sack & go with us.  While overlooking the Letaba River from the large restaurant veranda, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of French toast, fried eggs, bacons, butter, jelly & toast, served with hot tea for Ruth & me, and with hot chocolate for the kids. Total bill was R179.20, which is about $24. That's a lot more expensive than meals used to be here in the Kruger, but six bucks each still isn't too bad, I guess.The fence at Letaba CampWe were served by Neta, a sweet Gazankulu woman from a small village near Hazyview, who charmed Clara and paid careful attention to Clara's special dietary instructions. Neta needs a ride to Shingwedzi Camp tomorrow, & we offered to take her with us. She's going to let us know in the morning.   Clara is the most eagle-eyed among the four of us when looking for game in the African bush. She excels at both spotting game way ahead of the rest of us & at flawless species identification. Time and again she'll name the animal correctly while we three are squinting to see if it's a wildebeest, buffalo, or just a big dark boulder. The Kruger abounds with large gray rocks & boulders which Ruth & I, in our zeal to see an animal, often mistake for elephants or whatever.  Every time we make such an error, Will (age 13) lets out a mocking sigh & shakes his head, embarrassed that he could possibly have such stupid parents.  Cape BuffaloCape BuffaloBy midday we'd washed our laundry in the camp's coin laundry & hung them out to dry using the clothesline & clothes pins we brought with us. The temp had risen to a comfy 25 C (77 F) & the incessant wind had abated to a mere gale force, helping the clothes to dry quickly. At 2:00 PM we drove out for a long afternoon game drive along[...]



1 Comments

2012-04-18T08:48:42.319-04:00

Kruger National Park, South Africa Day 3 Report (March 30)[This continues a day-by-day series of reports on my family's recent trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa.]Last night's ferocious thunderstorms persisted until the wee hours at Satara Camp, knocking out power briefly 3 times. We kept waking up to check on the kids and to listen to the downpour. It was wonderful! Our Family Cottage at Satara CampInside our Family Cottage at SataraGas station at Satara CampFence surrounding Satara Camp Ruth and I let the kids sleep in a bit this morning while we headed out for a game drive as soon as they opened the gates at 5:30am. We didn't see many animals (though we did see a lot of birds), but we enjoyed the beauty & tranquillity of an African sunrise illuminating the lush green grass still damp with rain. (Other early morning adventurers were more fortunate and saw Leopards at 3 places we'd driven past, proving once again that seeing wild African animals is all about chance.)Secretary BirdLeopard TortoiseAfter a hearty breakfast of a sausage roll, fried eggs, bacon, stewed tomatoes, and toast and croissant with butter and jelly, we packed the VW diesel van for the short drive (we thought) north 79 kms to Letaba Camp. However, no one told us, nor were there any warning signs posted to the effect, that several roads and bridges en route north had been washed out in the mid-January floods that had devastated the Park. Thanks to friends in South Africa, we had seen pictures in January of water 18 inches deep at Letaba Camp, which is built on a high bank of the Letaba River. But nobody told us of the wash-outs, or that no repairs had since been made. Thus a trip that should have taken a couple of hours took until 2:00pm. We arrived Letaba after a harrowing drive from Satara. We found 3 bridges washed out and not yet repaired, which by itself would have not been so bad. However, Park officials had posted no detour or warning signs in advance, and we didn't know about the washouts until we reached each one. This caused us to backtrack many kms and detour each time. I tried to bring this to the resident Park Ranger's attention at Letaba when we finally arrived, but discovered he was attending a conference and had left no backup. I've made too many trips to count to the Kruger since 1991, and I've always been impressed with the professional management of the Park. Until now. Many people coming behind us this afternoon had the same experience. A lot of families arrived late as a result of the failure of Park management to post warning informational signs.HipposHipposWe nonetheless enjoyed the day immensely. I didn't expect to see many animal species after the torrential rains of last night; usually they disperse into the bush after such a deluge. So we were very pleased to see many elephants at numerous locations, as well as lots of Vervet Monkeys, Chacma Baboons, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, impala, warthogs, Cape Buffalo, hippos, kudu, bushbuck, waterbuck, Leopard Tortoises, and 2 species we had not seen the previous 2 days: a large monitor lizard (over 3' long) and a steenbok. ZebraWaterbuck (all females)Lions (from previous day's drive to Satara)In the avian world today we saw the usual flocks of doves and francolin and guineafowl, lots of Yellow-billed and Red-billed hornbills, many Lilac-breasted Rollers, a couple of Sadd[...]



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2012-04-11T19:04:21.478-04:00

Kruger National Park, South Africa:An Unforgettable Family ExperienceReaders of Allen On Travel know that my family and I love to visit the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  We've been many times, and we hope to return again many more times.  I've been going to the Kruger since early 1991; once I got a taste of it, I was hooked.Where else can you see such a variety and number of African wildlife in natural habitats on a completely self-drive photo safari.  That is, you can book it yourself, rent a car from AVIS once you get there, and drive yourself all over the Park, which is 300 miles long and 50 miles or more wide.  No need for expensive guides; no, the Kruger maintains 12 self-contained "Rest Camps" complete with restaurants, grocery and curio stores, gas stations, and all manner of private accommodation.  The individual bungalows are called "rondavels" and are heated and air-conditioned, with private showers, toilets, hot and cold running water, and electricity.  Almost all come with a fridge (many with a full kitchen) and a porch.  The cost is extremely reasonable, but I am not going to get into that here.  Instead, I'm going to jump right into the trip itself and post reports made on the spot during the first two days of our recent 10 days in the Kruger.  Next week I'll post another daily report or two, and so on.We booked Delta because they now have a nonstop flight Atlanta to Johannesburg, so it's just two hops to get to South Africa, the first from RDU to ATL (one hour), and the second one, DL200/201, is an extended range 777 that stays aloft for over 16 hours one way (about 8400 miles).  That's a long way and a long time in coach, but I've done that four times since August, all in coach, and not only survived, but recommend it.  Well, OK, I recommend the first four rows of coach, which are called "Economy Comfort" and have 4 extra inches of legroom and 4 extra inches of recline.  But every coach seat is equipped with a super-duper entertainment system (over 200 movies, plus games, plus HBO and other TV selections--you'll never get bored).  Our kids loved it, and so did we.  The routine is: drink plenty of water constantly, doze, watch a movie, read a bit, nibble a little (the food was actually good), nod off again for an hour or so, hit the WC, drink more water, stretch for a few minutes in the mid-cabin space, drink more water, watch another movie, sleep some more, read another few pages, stretch, hit the toilet again, nibble, and so on and so forth.  In what didn't seem like 16 hours, we were landing.Only drawback of the Delta flight is that it gets in in the afternoon, and it's impossible to connect for the 50 minute puddle jumper from Jo'burg to the Kruger Mpumalanga Airport (airport code MQP), the gateway to the Park (the small airport is near the town of Nelspruit). We booked rooms at the Airport Grand Hotel which were very adequate, clean, and served a killer buffet breakfast (included in the $128 room rate).  Also included is a free shuttle bus between the airport and the hotel.  It leaves from the shuttle bus area (every porter can point the way) on the half hour and departs the hotel for the airport on the hour.  The bus runs from about 6:00 AM until past 10:00 PM daily.  We recommend the Airport Grand Hotel.  It's a da[...]