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.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Take A Ferry To Cape Fear’s Bald Head Island For Seaside Seclusion, Serenity, & Natural Beauty

I’ve written ad nauseam about the trials and tribulations of flying, and about the occasional relief from the tyranny of air travel. For example, we had a great Amtrak experience at Thanksgiving from Seattle to the Twin Cities aboard the Empire Builder, and recently I logged over 1700 miles in a rented Toyota Avalon to Chicago and back from Raleigh. Until now, though, I haven’t written about water-borne transport.

Just prior to a recent weekend, my wife and I, needing a break from Raleigh, knew that we did NOT want to fly anywhere. Why tempt the misery that too often comes with a trip to the airport? So instead we booked Friday and Saturday nights in a rented condo on Bald Head Island, the exclusive and beautiful island retreat near Southport, about 40 minutes south of Wilmington.

Bald Head Island, less famous than more exclusive Figure Eight Island some miles north, is one of North Carolina’s barrier islands. Bald Head juts out into the Atlantic and at its southeastern tip is Cape Fear. Beyond the cape lie the treacherous Frying Pan Shoals.

Yes, it was still a bit chilly on the N.C. coast, but the beach beauty and tranquility can’t be beat, even when we are wrapped in quilted jackets. So off we went on a Friday afternoon, a quick two hour drive to Wilmington and a slower one hour crawl from there to Southport to catch the private ferry that moves the rich and famous between the mainland and the island.

Just made the 7:00 PM ferry—a PEOPLE-AND-PETS-ONLY ferry, I hasten to add. No cars are allowed on Bald Head Island, one of its appeals.

Once on board the boat the magic began! It was by then dark, and we watched Southport recede as the lights of Bald Head Island hove into view. I swear there were more dogs on board than people! There are Bald Head year-round residents (well-heeled) and mere weekenders, but they all share a great love of dogs, and the variety of breeds crossing the waters with us would have made any dog show proud. My kids enjoyed going from mutt to mutt to pay their respects, and they were rewarded with plenty of love and licks in return.

So far, so good, I thought. The ferry staff was professional and friendly, and the boat left the dock dead on time and arrived at the island in about 20 minutes. Sure beats flying!

A bevy of elongated golf carts with trailers and chauffeurs met us at the dock. Once our luggage was brought off the ferry (very fast and efficient handling) we loaded everything into the waiting electric limos, and we were delivered to our respective abodes. In our case we had rented a 3 bedroom condo with a gorgeous view of the salt marshes on the inner stretches of the island. It was like a hotel: all linens, towels, and so on provided. We only needed to stock the fridge.

Next morning we were up early to explore the island, just a few miles wide and long in our own golf cart. Every house and condo has its own golf carts, many of them large and fancy affairs with room for as many as six. The prevailing golf cart culture is stress-free, quiet, and keeps you close to the outdoors.

Stress-free, that is, until we were stopped by the island police! Seems our condo owner had forgotten to renew his Bald Head Island golf cart annual license and registration, an oversight which had been spotted by the electric car constabulary. Although I thought it petty and stupid to regulate golf carts on a private island that bans automobiles, we nonetheless traded in our cart for one with a current registration.

And headed off to the mid-island grocery store and snack bar. There we enjoyed a quiet, peaceful breakfast amid the gorgeous live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, and then shopped for lunch and dinner victuals in the well-stocked emporium. In addition to a decent deli of fine foods, the store boasts an impressive wine selection.

With our bellies full and our pantry stocked, we tooled quietly off in our electric limo to all parts of the island: Nature walks through primeval maritime forests with poison ivy vines so frighteningly mature they are as big around as your arm, gorgeous palm trees and live oaks; sea birds galore on the ocean and beach, along with schools of dolphin swimming ten feet from shore; alligators sunning themselves in the marsh; and picture postcard white sandy beaches ranging from gently lapping waves to roaring thunder surf, with plenty of beach access points.

Bald Head Island has a tropical-like environment even in the waning days of winter, and we thoroughly enjoyed the day. Wilmington is the northern limit of a number of palms and semitropical flora, so the island has the feel of a place far south of its location. Add to that the inherent privacy and exclusivity—and no automobiles—and you have a pretty good set-up for a relaxing weekend…or week, if you can afford it.

We achieved our purpose for the weekend: to recharge our batteries and to relieve stress. Best of all, no airports and no airplanes.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

AirTran Does A Good Job—Again! (What’s The Commercial Aviation World Coming To When There’s Nothing To Complain About?)

Much as I would like to gripe about AirTran’s poor service—and Lord knows I have been subjected to too much of it in past years—the last few trips on them have been painless, and even, dare I say it, enjoyable!. Maybe upgrading to their so-called business class had something to do with it, but it’s not just that.

Here is an example of what I mean, this trip the usual four-leg itinerary over Atlanta from Raleigh to New Orleans:

For starters, they were on time. Actually, that’s a lot more than just "starters." Being on time and operating a reliable schedule is probably the most important single thing an airline can do to keep my business.

But, wait a minute. Technically, AirTran was not on time. No, they were EARLY on three flights out of four. They even boarded up early and then left the Atlanta gates early on both connecting flights. And then arrived early. I was astonished—in a good way, mind you.

Darn it, they robbed me of a chance to complain about their lack of schedule integrity, so I scrutinized their people at the gates and on board to find fault with their attitudes or, perhaps, the parsimonious provision of information, smiles, and general helpfulness. But I could find nothing other than cheerful human faces, kind demeanors, and service-oriented actions.

For example, when a young mom was struggling with her baby and her toddler and all their stuff to board first, the AirTran gate agent laughed out loud and said, “Well, c’mon then! Looks like you could use all the help you can get.” And with that she picked up the stroller and car seat and launched herself down the jetway, chattering away to the grateful mom. I cannot recall the last time I saw a gate agent on any airline act so nicely.

The airplanes were clean, too, at least compared to the recent craft I’ve flown in belonging to several of the Big Six carriers. AirTran Boeing 717s also sport XM Radio, with free earplugs for everybody who wants them, not just for elite flyers and business class folks.

I had chosen AirTran over Delta to fly RDU to New Orleans for the funeral of the venerable mother of a close friend who had died suddenly at almost 89, so it was on short notice. Delta wanted almost $1,000 for the flights, while AirTran's top fare for the city pairs was less than $400.

I spent another $80 each way upgrading on all four flights at the first gate, and it was well worth it. I am not an elite flyer on AirTran, and they don’t care. First come; first served on the upgrades. If you have the money and are first to ask, the seat’s yours. No groveling, mewling and puling in hopes a gate agent will throw you a bone and give you an upgrade. Just pay up, and it’s yours. Wonderful simplicity.

And probably a relief on at least two flights that were packed in the back, though the other two had plenty of open seats in coach.
It was easy to check in, too, on line (leaving) and at the airport kiosks (returning), and easy to request upgrades in the process at the kiosk.

As a Delta Five Million Miler (actually 5.3, I believe), I usually choose them, but this experience has convinced me that AirTran is an affordable, bearable, even enjoyable, alternative. Especially since Delta’s fares in every market these days seem to have skyrocketed.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

873 Miles Overland Versus Air (With A Little Help From Magellan)

One way to foil the airlines is not to fly on them, and that’s what I did this week.

Instead, I rented a beautiful Toyota Avalon from Hertz at the Raleigh-Durham Airport and drove 873 miles to Chicago and then drove the same 873 miles again back to Raleigh. Yes, that’s right: I DROVE!

Thanks to mostly good weather and few serious traffic delays, the trip each way consumed just over 13 hours, including pit stops. Those were mostly bio-breaks as the Avalon racked up an astonishing 29.4 MPG overall, therefore making over 430 miles on a tank of gas. If my body was capable of it, I could have made the entire run each way with just a single stop for gasoline. But I chose not to adopt the Astronaut-adult-diaper-long-distance-drive-method (nor did any pepper spray accompany me).

The Avalon drove like a champ! What a beautiful machine! I averaged 66.09 MPH on the return trip, yet never exceeded the speed limits (usually 65-70 MPH) by more than 4 MPH on mostly Interstate highways. Wish the car was mine, but I chose to rent from Hertz so as not to put 1700 miles of wear and tear on one of our cars. Even in fairly heavy snow along Lake Michigan for two early morning hours on my return, the Avalon stuck firmly to the road, and I never had to slow down.

Because I was traveling alone, I bought a Magellan RoadMate 2000 GPS from BestBuy for $350. It’s exactly the same device as the Hertz NeverLost, and it worked perfectly as my navigator there and back. If you have ever used NeverLost, you don’t even need to read the instructions for this unit. Just turn it on, and program where you want to go. It gets a satellite fix within a few minutes and starts giving directions.

The Magellan unit is quite small, about the size of a deck of cards, so it is portable, and I intend to take it with me on all business trips henceforth. If you want to spend twice as much, newer units (Magellan, Garmin, and other brands) are much slimmer, sexier, and have advance features. I figure the one I bought will pay for itself in the next 35 days of Hertz rentals, since NeverLost costs an extra $10/day.

And it’s a legitimate business expense.

The combination of a fine car, the Magellan RoadMate 2000, favorable weather, and minimal road construction all contributed to a successful and relaxing trip.

One other factor made the trip enjoyable: I was my own master. I was not viewed as a security risk simply for arriving at an airport checkpoint, and I was not then held captive in an aluminum tube and fed no information and no food for hours on end.

I could stop to go to the bathroom whenever I wanted. I could slow down (briefly) to watch the Appalachians catch the early morning sun, to see the deep Ohio River rolling along, and on stretches of local highways my GPS instructed me onto en route, I could enjoy the small towns and countryside of North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

OK, OK, I know the big question is why the heck did I drive in the first place. Even if it was a welcome alternative to being an airline prisoner, the experience had its own share of minor frustrations and took 13 hours instead of approximately 6 hours by air to the same location (cab to airport well in advance; air itself; rental car bus to rental car plaza; rental car from airport to destination).

The answer is wine. Really tasty California Cabernet Sauvignon. Several cases in fact. The vino had been accumulating for four years at a friend’s house in Arlington Heights, and I could not legally have it shipped to Raleigh, thanks to North Carolina alcohol laws designed to protect wine distributors in our fair state. The only way to get the stuff home was to go get it as I did.

To tell the truth, I wasn’t much looking forward to what I perceived as an uncomfortable, long, even grueling drive, especially by myself.

I could not have been more mistaken in my anticipation of the experience. I now see renting a car and driving a long distance as a viable alternative to flying when things go very wrong at the airport, as they often do.

I began to experiment with driving after several really bad airline service failures in 2006. For instance, last March, when United and American canceled their flights one snowy evening from O’Hare to Columbus, Ohio (and to many other places), I rented a Subaru Outback with full-time 4-wheel drive and made it to Columbus even with serious snow most of the way by 5:00 AM. Tired, yes, but where I needed to be.

If you have read my blog, you know I had to make several overland treks between Chicago and Marquette, Michigan in both directions in October and November last year, too. One of those overnight trips involved smashing a brand new Cadillac into a sizable buck at 65 MPH in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (we just kept driving).

But those excursions were in the 300-400 mile range. My experiment this week to Chicago was twice that, and I know now that it can be done, and handily, painlessly. Thanks to the success of this trip, next time I feel like I’m being held hostage by the airlines, chances are that I will call Hertz, reach into my case for my personal NeverLost GPS, and drive.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

State Department Botches Routine Passport Renewal:
Laugh Or Cry?

I have to laugh at the ironies. Let me explain:

I’ve had a U.S. passport for 38 years with no gaps or interruptions. With such a long history on record with the U.S. State Department and as a natural-born United States citizen with roots going back 400 years to Virginia’s Jamestown Colony, you’d think a passport renewal would be a piece of cake.

Time and again since our country’s birth my family has proved allegiance to the United States of America. We fielded four officers in the American Revolution who fought for freedom in General George Washington’s Continental Army. We served our country in every major war since, proof positive that the Allens are blue-blooded American patriots.

So you’d think getting a passport renewed would be no big deal.

Not only that I was employed as a seaman long ago aboard Duke University’s Research Vessel EASTWARD, a position which required me to become a Coast Guard-certified Merchant Mariner. I hold a federally-issued Ordinary Seaman’s ticket, and my fingerprints have long been on file with the F.B.I. as required when one joins the U.S. Merchant Marine.

Sounds like someone with a long history in the good graces of the federal government.

And when I was working in Munich in the mid 1970s, the United States Consulate there issued me a special SECOND passport (I still had my original, and it was still valid) to help me navigate across borders without pesky interference from German, Swiss, Belgian, and French Immigration officials. This was after I had helped a high-ranking American official get someone close to him out of a sticky situation in Iran during the era of the Shah. (I was then European Manager for a big student charter flight business.)

Jeez, it sure sounds like our government has trusted me for a very long time, and that therefore getting my passport renewed would be easy as pie.

So I sent my passport renewal form with a check for $67, my old passport, and the requisite pictures off to the Passport Renewal Center in Philadelphia in mid January.

Six weeks later, I still had no new passport. Since I have an overseas trip planned soon, I went to the official U.S. Department of State passport application status website ( to see what I could learn.

Hmm, I thought. They ask for a last name and last four digits of one’s SSN. Wonder if they want the suffix “III” or just my surname. Looking at the passport renewal form (I kept a copy), I saw the suffix is in a separate box from surname, so I tried my last name alone.

No dice. The website claimed they had no record of me. I tried it again as “Allen III” and came up with the same “never heard of you” message.

Reluctantly I reached for the phone to dial the toll-free number, and as I anticipated, eventually (after navigating the usual tiers of “push 2 for this” and “push 3 for that”) got the dreaded message: “I’m sorry, but unusually high call volumes prevent us from serving you at this time. Please try your call again later.” CLICK!

Persevering, I got through to a waiting queue on the 16th attempt and remained on hold for 19 minutes for a real person who works for the State Department and was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I’ll call him Bob to protect his real identity. I explained my dilemma, and Bob took my entire social security number.

After some clicking on his computer, Bob calmly announced that he had found the problem: Someone had keyed in my name as William A. Allen LLL.

“LLL instead of III?” I asked. “How could that be? ’L’ is not even adjacent to ‘I’ on the keyboard!”

“These things happen all the time,” Bob replied. I thought I detected a sigh. “I am sending through a correction now.” I heard more soft clicking in the background. “Shouldn’t be a problem since they haven’t issued your passport yet.”

“But why would they even NEED to key in my name?" I demanded. “I have been in your system for almost 40 years.”

“Well, we are always going to new systems, and they have to re-key everything every time.” He answered. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but there it is.”

“Dumbest thing I ever heard when there are many ways to electronically transfer data when updating databases. Re-keying is inefficient, expensive, slow, and error-prone.” I said. “Bottom line is that you have corrected it, right? So I have two questions: First, are you SURE I will get a passport with my correct name and not “LLL”? And second, when can I expect it to arrive?”

Bob explained: “I’m 90% your name will be correct, but this correction will cause a delay, pushing you back in the backlog. I think you should call us back if you don’t have your passport by March 16th. If you can get through, of course. You know the President instituted the requirement for passports to and from Canada and Mexico effective January 23rd, and we were overwhelmed with two million new passport applications in late January as a result. So the State Department is swamped right now.”

“But this keying error is hardly my fault,” I countered. “Is there any way to expedite this?”

“Great idea, and I recommend it,” Bob said. “It’ll be an extra $60 plus $14.40 for the overnight postage. With luck you should have it within a week.”

For peace of mind I charged $74.40 over the phone to Bob. I didn’t yell and scream at him; it wasn’t his fault. Bob was very helpful and competent even if some of his colleagues were obviously not.

My passport arrived four days later—and in the correct name. Of course it was a huge relief to get it so fast after my inquiry and with my name spelled as it appears on my birth certificate.

Still, this incident was wasteful and non-value adding. Had I not called to inquire about the delay, I would have (eventually) received a passport in the wrong name—which presumably I could have used to travel worldwide under the name Will Allen LLL for the next ten years.

I am perturbed about the bungling inside the sausage factory at State:

> Why re-key data that’s been in multiple federal databases, including the State Department’s and the FBI’s, for 40 years?

> If they do re-key it, don’t they have any ways and means to validate the data?

> Why should I be penalized $74.40 plus my lost time plus aggravation due to the incompetence of a federal process which I have already paid $67 for in addition to lots of tax dollars?

> Why should solid citizens who have had passports forever and are simply renewing be swept up in the deluge of new passport applications set loose by a Presidential whim?

I’m sure my forebears from the age of the Founding Fathers would be displeased with the red tape and inefficiencies of the federal government they launched with such high hopes in the 1780s. I know I am.

I do see the irony in it all, however, and that’s where I will let it lie: No matter how well one plans, no matter the tidiness and care of one's preparations, no matter the spotless record and long heritage of good citizenship, the steam roller of inefficient bureaucracy thwarts all.

If your passport is within six months of expiration, I recommend you renew extra early just in case.

And I hope you don’t have a suffix like "Jr." or "III" or "LLL" attached to your name.