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 have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Amazing String Of Good Luck

Last week and this week (so far) I have been on 13 flights. They were on Continental (2), Northwest (3), American (7), and Delta (1) between and among airports in Raleigh, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis/St.Paul, Duluth, Madison (WI), Marquette (MI), and Atlanta. All but one have operated within 30 minutes of their schedules--a new record string of good luck in my air travels recently. The one that didn't was delayed by Chicago snow.

I do not know why the Fates have graced me with this relief from the usual pain, but I am very grateful, and quite amazed, frankly. Long may this trend last!

Northwest Club At O'Hare Is A Hidden Jewel

Connecting from an AA flight to a Northwest flight in O'Hare last week I stumbled upon the NW ORD World Club for the first time in many years. I was amazed its size and what a wonderful sanctuary its space is. The club looks out onto the tarmac with lots of glass and curves gently around with several thoughtful room divisions. Ample desks-cum-cubicles are provided for quiet work areas. Staff were numerous and quite anxious to serve.

All in all, it was a very nice experience, and I was able to be productive as I waited for my on-time Northwest flight to the Twin Cities.

I often use Delta's ORD Crown Room (L Concourse), which also has friendly & helpful staff, but the Delta club doesn't seem nearly as spacious, nor is it designed as well as the NW World Club.

Duluth Airport Provides Free Wifi & Boasts The Afterburner Cafe

My first-ever passage through the Duluth Airport last week was a rewarding experience. I discovered great latte available at the Afterburner Cafe just before entering the tiny TSA security gamut--and I don't even particularly like coffee.

While sipping my hot cup of Joe I noticed signs announcing a free wireless available throughout the airport, so I opened my laptop and was able to work through 40-odd overnight emails that othewise would have waited until much later in the day (this was prior to receiving my aircard, which promises to unshackle me forever from dependence upon wifi, about which more later).

Thus Duluth joins the ranks of a few mainly small airports like Fargo and Marquette, Michigan that provide complimentary wifi, and I sincerely thank the Duluth airport authority for the free service.

By the way, personnel throughout the airport were genuinely friendly and courteous, including the TSA staff, and their attitude made traveling through Duluth a breeze.

Too bad the wind chill caused by the breeze outside the structure was well below zero, but that's another story.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Harmonizing Expectations To The Higher Cost Of Non-Air Travel

It's not just air travel that's challenging these days. In South Florida last week on business, I was quoted a $50 transfer to the airport by the hotel concierge, but the limo service told me it was now $55 (before tips).

"That's our new price effective January 1," he said, when I expressed surprise. "But I guess the word hasn't gotten out."

"A 10% increase in one day is kind of steep, isn't it?" I replied.

"Huh?" my driver mumbled. "Well, yeah, I hadn't thought about it like that! $5 didn't seem like that much."

And that seems to be the story of 2007. Already in November and December my hotel rates went up noticeably. I was quoted $239 (plus taxes) for a Hampton Inn, a new high for the lowest Hilton brand, and this week I paid a client's supposedly dirt-cheap corporate rate of $120 (plus taxes) for a Marriott Courtyard in an overbuilt Chicago suburb.

Next week I have reservations at hotels in Cleveland, Duluth, Chicago, and Huntsville, and I'll pay an average of $145/night at very pedestrian hotel properties (Courtyard, Hampton, Days Inn, Holiday Inn) for a total of $725.

That's about $100 more than I paid last year for 4 nights, a 17% increase.

For the plain-vanilla car Hertz made me wait a long time for at Chicago O'Hare this week (see previous post), I paid over $100 per day, including taxes and fees, and next week's cars in Cleveland, Duluth, O'Hare, and Huntsville are all quoted at $90-110/day inclusive of taxes. That means I'll spend over $500 for 5 days of rental cars next week.

That's about 10-15% more than I paid for the same cars this time last year.

I know all this because I keep all my expenses in Quicken, which allows me to do comparative analysis quickly and easily.

So who says inflation is under control?

Well, at least the airfares I'm paying are just a bit more than last year, and in some cases about the same (up about 3-5% from 2006 so far in the markets I've been flying to). But accommodation and car rentals have gone up dramatically.

Why is this, and what effect does it have on me and my worklife?

Everything I read tells me that hotels and car rental companies have more price power than the airlines, so I accept this as the reason. The effect on me and my colleagues, who must travel every week, is unrelenting client pressure to reduce their costs by having us stay in more and more downscale hotel properties and rent ever smaller, cheaper cars.

In years past I always stayed at so-called "full service" hotels like real Hiltons and Marriotts and Hyatts and Sheratons. More often these days it's a Hampton Inn or a Fairfield Inn.

I don't require coddling by a Ritz-Carlton or a Four Seasons, but it is nice, even essential, to have a bar and a restaurant on premise, and room service. These used to be basic services one could expect in a hotel property. Mostly, however, those options are not available now.

That makes travel more Spartan, more difficult. It's a subtle and slow pain, like being nibbled to death by ducks. But I have resigned myself to the inevitability of it if I want to continue my career.

Awareness of the persistent cost reduction challenge is a good reason to perfect and reinforce my Zen approach to the weekly travel ordeal, and that's what I do. It also helps to remind myself that Joe Brancatelli is right when he says that, no matter the challenges and inconveniences, we are the lucky ones to be able to experience the world.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Breaking News: Hertz Runs Out Of Cars At O'Hare, Doesn't Know Why, & Doesn't Manage The Situation Well

As of 1:00 PM CT Tuesday, January 16, Hertz at O'Hare is out of cars, but they don't know why. And they are irritated that you'd want to know.

I have rented with Hertz for over 30 years, and I have never known them to run out. Hertz O'Hare Manager Barabara Fitzgerald was clearly uncomfortable and pursed her lips as she tried, but failed, to explain why when I insisted on speaking to a manager:

"We don't KNOW why we have no cars," Barbara said. "We THINK it's because of the snow yesterday, but we don't know for sure."

"Well," I said, "There's less than an inch of snow on the ground and traffic is normal, so that seems unlikely. I have rented cars for decades from Hertz here at O'Hare in winter storms far worse than the paltry snow you had yesterday, and I have NEVER had a problem. Don't your computers tell you where the cars are that are supposed to be here?"

But Barbara just shrugged and said again they did not know why there are no cars.

Meanwhile, the line out the door at the Gold Booth was at least 50-60 people, and more were being dropped off by the busses all the time. The main rental building was crowded with scores of people waiting for cars.

"Minimum 1 hour, 45 minute wait," I heard the counter agents say over and over, but a fellow next to me grumbled that he'd already waited over two hours for them to call his name.

Barbara and the so-called "Hertz Customer Service Representatives" were not handling things proactively, either. They were refusing to say why or offer explanations, and they were defensive and snappy at any questions from long-time renters like us Gold and President's Circle members.

It is not Hertz's finest hour, and there seemed no end in sight for the poor folks left there as I drove away after my own delay.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Disney Postscript
Part 4

Our Walt Disney World vacation over, these reflections on the experience stick in our minds:

1. We were chided for traveling over the Christmas holidays to the Orlando area, perhaps the busiest time of the year. But the "best" and "worst" times to visit are less relevant when you have kids in school like we do. After all, that's why they are called "holidays." It's when we all take time off. Our choices were what they were based on school schedules, plain and simple. Disney and the supporting travel providers have a responsibility to deliver during the busy times. And that brings me to point two:

2. Any service organization has only one service standard, not one for "normal" times and another, lesser one for busy times. They should manage to achieve the same high standard at all times, but in practice they are ONLY as good as the standard they achieve during the busy times. Disney and the surrounding infrastructure that lives off Disney did not perform well this past week. There are no acceptable EXCUSES for having failed in providing good service, but there are certainly many REASONS, chief among them putting greed ahead of making good on the promises they marketed to children. Yet plenty of people wrote to make excuses for Disney or criticized me for taking my family there over the holidays. Which brings me to the final point:

3. Nothing I've written touched a nerve in the American psyche like the topic of Disney. Such emotion! I inadvertently engendered anger in some and angst in others, and it attracted its share of kooks as well. One vilification, for example, came from self-styled "Terry Wrist" (get it? "terror-ist?") who hides behind an anonymous nihilist blog with no blog posts called NullVoidWaste that doesn't even reveal a profile. Many, including the cowardly Mr. "Wrist," didn't even read my blog posts completely, with the consequence that they inaccurately cited inaccuracies. Ah, the irony!

My new year's resolution is to stick to business travel.

Happy 2007!