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, February 27, 2007

Walt Disney World Redux

Even as the memory of our family trip to WDW over Christmas recedes into the foggy past, readers continue to comment. I appreciate the constructive criticism and advice on how we might have managed things better. I've published all such comments, and you can read them if you go back to the original posts in late December and early January. Thank you all for taking the time to write.

However, some comments have not been published. Many of those were disdainful of our choice to go to Disney World over Christmas, ignoring the hard fact that we had no choice since our children are out of school then and not in, say, late January.

To those critics, I will just say that I agree with the following summation by a very well-known and respected travel journalist regarding my blog entries of our dismal Disney experience:

"You judge a [travel] company [like Disney] on its WORST days, not its best days, is where this lies. Anyone who says stuff like 'You should know not to go to X [during a busy time like Christmas],' well, they are fools. ... And if you DO choose to acknowledge them, then hit them with the $64 answer: 'Sorry, an experience is only as good as it is on its worst day.' That ends all discussion in my mind.

"Only in travel do people expect you to get the least when you've paid the most!"

Enough said on that subject, I guess.

For veterans and newbies alike to WDW, I recommend The Unofficial Guide To Walt Disney World by Len Testa and Bob Sehlinger. It is quantitative analysis: a wholly fact-based, thoroughly researched, and frequently updated look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of WDW. If we ever do go back, we will have it with us, well-thumbed and dog-eared.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

3 Day Trip To Portland, Oregon Proves To Be Fine & Memorable

Leaving Sunday afternoon from Raleigh on American Airlines, I was relieved to be upgraded on both flights to Portland, Oregon, connecting through Chicago. After a 3 hour layover at O’Hare, where I was able to work productively in AA’s big Admirals Club, I rushed to gate H17 Sunday night for my 8:20 PM departure to PDX. My hurry was motivated by advice from the Admirals Club staff that the inbound aircraft was there and that boarding would shortly commence: Hurry, hurry!

Except that the Admirals Club staff was dead wrong. Not only was there no airplane, but a delayed flight to Tucson was being boarded chaotically at gate H17, with lots of stand-bys and denied boarding passengers hanging around for their hotel vouchers, AA bribe money, and new tickets for the next day.

The bedlam was such that I could barely make my way to the desk to ask if I was at the right gate. It was already almost 8:00 PM, and my plane was scheduled to leave at 8:20 PM. Furthermore, AA’s flight info screens throughout O’Hare were showing my Portland flight at gate H17 and dead on time.

A harried but courteous AA gate agent confirmed that the Portland flight “is next at this gate” but that the Portland airplane would have to be “towed to the gate from the hangar after the Tucson flight pushes back.”

When? I asked. “Don’t know,” she said, so obviously exasperated that I left her alone, and she went back to patiently explaining to gullible twenty-somethings how to get a courtesy bus to the gorgeous and swanky O’Hare Ramada where AA had generously booked them rooms. I pitied them.

Another pointless airline ordeal, I sighed to myself, and settled into a practiced Zen-like introspection to insulate me from the madding crowds and uncertain delay.

Why is it, I often wonder, that airline information systems get it so wrong?

Why would Admirals Club agents tell me for 3 hours that an inbound aircraft would make up my Portland flight and that it was on time when in fact the aircraft was towed over from storage and the flight was late?

Such mysteries are endemic to the industry. Agents and screens encourage us to scurry to our gates, but once there, reality is something else again. Even there the local gate agents working the flights, as in this case, don’t know how events will unfold. The unknown and unknowable, another anomaly of this screwy industry.

We left an hour late, and arrived to Portland just before midnight instead of the 10:50 PM PT scheduled time, but the AA in-flight personnel were so kind that I relaxed and slept after reading and annotating just over 300 pages of notes for my client.

Overnight was spent at the Hilton Garden Inn at the airport, where the staff welcomed me as if I was a regular guest instead of the reality (my first stay ever). It was a typical Hilton GI, and its predictability was reassuring and relaxing. The wireless Internet actually worked; I caught a snippet of Bill Maher on HBO before drifting off to sleep, and I managed to be fairly alert for my 6:30 AM conference call Monday. Afterwards I enjoyed a really good hot breakfast with local yogurt. All in all, Hilton sent me on my way rested and relaxed for my workday ahead. Oh, and the hotel was a reasonable $104 per night plus tax, too (AAA or AARP rate).

Good thing I started well, because traffic in civilized Portland is brutal, made worse by the incessant English-style drizzle. But I sure enjoyed the big fir trees and the rolling landscape.

Back at PDX the next night I was unable to get a nonsmoking room at the Hilton GI again, so I booked a room at the nearby airport Embassy Suites instead. More expensive per night at $154 plus tax plus $9.95 for Internet, it was nonetheless another relaxing experience. The room was clean and well-maintained, and the staff was universally nice and well-informed. I also enjoyed bypassing the long check-in line to use the automated check-in machine. It spit out my key and credentials in under a minute, and I was on my way to my room. Also, the business center was complimentary, and I was able to print out my boarding passes for the next day’s flights.

Early next morning I was at the airport by 5:40 AM for my 7:40 AM departure. What a joy to come back to Portland, Oregon’s airport (PDX) after a ten year absence and find it better than ever!

It was always a classy place, its interior spaces an open, airy Northwest fusion of Scandinavian blond woods, green and brown pastels, and faintly Asian styles that puts arriving passengers in the right mood for the area’s woodsy lifestyle and makes it hard for departing passengers to leave.

I had a marvelous breakfast at Gustav’s Pub & Grill on the C concourse, where the friendly Oregonian wait staff will bring you delicious German farmer’s Bierwurst or a host of other locally made sausages that beat anything I’ve ever had in an American airport restaurant.

Nearby Powell’s Books offers an extraordinary collection of Swiss-made Papyrus greeting cards for all occasions—and I DO mean ALL, as in Easter, Passover, St. Paddy’s Day, as well as the usual birthday and other occasions. The card racks are just outside the main store. Next to them is a rack of specially selected paperbacks with Powell’s Book staff comments rating each one.

Inside the store there is a thoughtful selection of hardcover and paperback books, along with a knowledgeable staff to offer reading recommendations to suit your taste. All in all, a very relaxing experience, and quite unexpected in most American airports (compare and contrast, for instance, the pedestrian Cincinnati airport retailers).

And did I say they are also friendly? Friendly seems to define the typical Oregonian. Something in the air and the lifestyle certainly seems to agree with them, and it rubs off.

I reluctantly left the book store and Gustav’s for my departure gate.

There is much else in the PDX retail area that’s out-of-the-ordinary for most airports: an Oregon specialties shop and a great children’s store are just two examples..

Once again I was upgraded on the longest flight leg, Portland-O’Hare. A billiard ball-shaped, walrus-mustachioed AA pilot upgraded at the last minute to seat 3F in front of me grumbled and groused that there was no place for his bag in the overhead compartments. Well, I thought, smiling, welcome to the real world, asswipe. It’s a little different from driving the plane, huh? Walrus God of the Sky, meet the schmucks who pay your salary—and shut up and sit down!

We enjoyed a surprisingly good and healthy breakfast snack (cereal, blueberries, banana) while I watched out my window at the gorgeous snow- and ice-covered Rockies pass beneath us in the clear sky below.

All in all, a great trip. I am always grateful for trips like these, even with minor annoyances and inconveniences like the O’Hare Never-Never Land at gate H17. Though the 25-mile crawl along I-205 back to the Portland airport was painful, the slow drag was punctuated by relatively polite Oegonian drivers and the grand Northwest scenery adjacent to the Columbia River Valley.

This was one of the great ones, a trip that I will conjure up in my memory next time one of the more typical travel disasters strikes. I just wish there are more of a balance—a yin for every yang—in my travel experiences. But I do treasure these rare fine excursions.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Practices Not Logical By Any Business Standards, Yet Pass For Normal In The Travel Biz

Why is it that I was able to get a last minute round trip Raleigh to Indianapolis fare on American for $337.60 that is fully refundable, yet over a week in advance recently Delta wanted $1,100 round trip Raleigh to Cincinnati, and it was nonrefundable?

Oh yeah: no competition in Cincy.

Why is it that even after AA has cancelled my flights Raleigh to O'Hare and then O'Hare to Indy due to the Tuesday blizzard this week the electronic lady from American keeps calling me over and over and over for the next three days to tell me the flight status of of all four of my cancelled flights on that now-defunct itinerary?

Hmmm, could be the lack of system integration at AA.

Why is it that British Airways announced a new one bag per customer policy after which they intend to charge about $100 per bag one way? Do they really hate their customers that much? Or are they just plain stupid? Could they be any more callous than that? Are they trying to one-up Ryanair, known for fleecing its customers? Whatever are the answers, I am stunned by management decisions as poor as this one. Logic was nowhere in the room when the decision was made.

Why is it that when I looked on the Hilton website to book an Atlanta airport-area hotel for one night next Thursday that the range of prices between their lowest ranked properties (Hampton Inns) and their top-of-the-line full Hilton was just $26? And why did that range begin at an eye-popping $144 for a Hampton, with the Hilton Garden Inn, Embassy Suites, and Doubletree brands in the Atlanta airport area just dollars apart in-between up to the $170 per night rate for the Hilton Atlanta Airport? Why even have different hotel brands if there is no real differentiation of products and services among them?

Why is it that I have to take more and more generic, slow rental car buses to a distant common rental car facility (examples include Cleveland and Fort Lauderdale and DFW), which take more time for all of us both getting to our cars and getting back to the airport than ever before, yet then the added fees and costs tacked onto our bills for these so-called "benefits" often make our total car costs $100 per day or more?

Why is it at Chicago O'Hare that most Hertz and Avis shuttle buses, already packed to Tokyo commuter train sardine-can fullness, nonetheless make that stupid circle over to the O'Hare International Terminal to drop off/pick up customers when there are never any customers at the International Terminal?

Such practices taunt the logical minds of right-thinking businessmen and businesswomen who have to go somewhere by air each week. One is forced into a suspension of belief that reason plays any part in the industry that gets us there and back.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Doing Business In Artic Weather: Ask The Locals How To Deal With 38 Below Zero

I had to fly to Duluth Monday morning early and then drive 80 miles to Hibbing, Minnesota (Bob Dylan’s home town). Hibbing was forecast Sunday night to be 33 to 38 degrees below zero (see below weather forecast for Hibbing on Sunday and Monday from

Weather Forecast for Hibbing, Minnesota (HIB) Chisholm Airport
Last Updated Sun Feb 04 12:53:00 PST 2007

Sunday, 04 Feb
Mostly Clear tonight. Lows 33 below to 38 below zero. Wind chill readings 35 below to 40 below zero after midnight. Northwest winds 5 to 15 mph.

Monday, 05 Feb
Partly Cloudy Monday. Mostly sunny. Highs 4 below to 9 below zero. West winds 5 to 15 mph. Wind chill readings around 50 below increasing to around 25 below in the afternoon.

Monday Night, 05 Feb
Partly cloudy. Lows 31 below to 36 below zero. Northwest winds 5 to 10 mph.

I knew that if your car craps out on you at 30 below, it’s over; you can quickly freeze to death before anyone comes by unless you are prepared. So I phoned friends and relatives who live in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and asked them what they do. Here’s what they advised:

(1) Wear lots of layers, and make the layer closest to your skin the best skiers’ grade underwear possible. Not particularly wanting to die, I therefore spent $144 Sunday afternoon to get equipped with the finest, warmest New Zealand Merino wool full body underwear from Great Outdoor Provision Company in Raleigh.

(2) Another friend (from Fargo) told me: “A cheap survival trick, widely used in this area, consists of an empty coffee can (metal), some old candles, & matches---this is a makeshift survival oven & can keep you warm for a couple of days. I always have a kit in my car when traveling North during the Winter.” I couldn’t take this advice because of the matches going through security, but I tried to cobble together something in Duluth.

(3) Keep all skin covered because frostbite or at least severe skin burns can occur in 30 below temps even with a few minutes of exposure. A Wisconsin friend said: “Just keep all your skin covered, no matter how dumb you look. You are smart if you keep covered.” So I packed my warmest thick gloves, scarf, and C-Store Thief Ski Mask that covers my whole face except for the eye, nose, and mouth holes.

That took care of me, but what about my rental car? Wouldn’t the oil congeal and the radiator possibly freeze up? But then I remembered that most Minnesotans have those plug-in contraptions under their hoods that warm the engine compartment and oil pan. You just plug an extension cord into it, and then your car will start no matter how cold it gets.

Except that Hertz in Duluth (in Duluth!) didn’t have cars with those electric heaters and plugs, and they had a special notice up, too, saying that Hertz would not pay for jump-starting cars too cold to start with batteries dead from renters trying repeatedly to start them anyway.

Luckily, my client, who was born and raised in Hibbing, had the solution: leave my rental car running all night in the hotel parking lot (with the doors locked) to avoid being frozen up in the morning.

Reluctantly (fretting about my selfish production of greenhouse gases), I followed his advice. Not only did it work, but I was relieved to find that the car burned only about an eighth of a tank of gas idling all night.

And it WAS cold! To amuse myself I tossed a glass of water straight up into the air this morning outside by the car at 6:00 AM, and the droplets froze in mid-air before they hit the ground.

Cold though it was, my first impression of the people in Hibbing was a good one. They are kind, full of good humor, resourceful (they have to be in this weather!), and helpful. I look forward to my next trip here, but frankly hope that it will be 100 degrees or so warmer.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

UK Doubles Its Already High Departure Tax &
American Airlines Makes Us Pay; Emirates Doesn't

So how about those Brits, huh? Guess they have decided to finance their entire public transport system by sticking it to any of us who fly there and then have the audacity to leave. Here's the gist of it:

Starting today (2-01-07), passengers leaving British airports must pay a new higher rate of air tax which is DOUBLE THE OLD TAX. No pay; no fly.

People like me who bought tickets to, or connecting through, the U.K. before the tax increase was announced in December and are flying after February 1 must pay the new rate.

British government officials admit the extra money will pay for public transport and environmental measures and that it will not directly benefit the flying public.

The levy doubles to 10 pounds (not quite US$20) for short-haul economy flights and 40 pounds (almost US$79) for long-haul economy.

The tax is even higher for Business and First Class tickets: 20 pounds (just under US$39) for flights in Europe and a whopping 80 pounds (about US$158) for long-haul flights, including to the USA.

One English government spokesman said: "It is airlines and travel companies - not passengers - who are liable."

That may be, but American Airlines has decided that I and my family, who are flying in Business Class to and from London Gatwick this spring, must pony up an extra $320 (total), or we won't be allowed to fly. Here's what their email to me said in part:

"Customers who purchased tickets prior to December 12, 2006, will need to pay the extra tax at the U.K. airport when checking in for their flight. Payment can be made by credit card or cash. American greatly regrets the inconvenience that this retroactive tax will cause our customers."

Regrets the inconvenience? Don't give me that insincere crap, AA. You could have absorbed it for your Premium Cabin customers, especially those of us who are Executive Platinums. We are supposedly your best customers, remember? Instead, you let us get a peek behind your facade to see how you REALLY feel about us: To you, we are just goats to be milked on a regular basis.

Now contrast AA's approach with the following email from Emirates, on whose flights we are traveling on beyond London in First Class:

"We wanted to advise you that the British government has announced an increase in its air passenger tax, effective February 1, 2007. Emirates Air will cover the increase and does not intend to pass any additional fee along to passengers."

British Airways has also announced that it will not make affected ticketholders pay the extra tax.

I figure I will be able to pay American back for extracting that $320 from me by giving some of my business to other carriers. If I book just one or two additional flights this year on Delta, Northwest, or Continental instead of AA, that should do it. I flew far more AA segments in 2006 than required to re-qualify for Executive Platinum, so selectively booking a few flights away from AA in 2007 won't threaten my 2008 status with them. I won't forget how American Airlines decided to handle the tax.

And I won't forget, either, that Emirates chose to take the high road. We have been looking forward to our first flying experience on Emirates, whose fine service in First and Business is said to be approaching that of Singapore. The fact that Emirates is absorbing the new tax shows the kind of class we all long for.