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.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

DIY Web Air Booking Improves

Like most everyone these days, I do more of my own air booking via the Internet than I’d like to. The reasons are simple and compelling:

(1) Booking online is often the cheapest way to go, especially if done directly at the airline’s own website; and

(2) Air reservations made, and tickets purchased, directly from an airline are the most likely to be protected when and if something goes wrong. And, as everybody knows, things go wrong often these days when an airport and airline are part of one’s travel plans.

Honestly, though, I don’t like doing it. Do-it-yourself booking on the Web’s a non-value adding drag on my time. Furthermore, I don’t enjoy trolling around Orbitz, Expedia, and the airline websites to find the best deal. It’s like shopping at a Middle eastern bazaar: At first it’s mildly exciting, but soon you lose track of when and where you actually had the bargain you were looking for, and the process becomes enormously tedious.

So if I MUST do it, I want user interfaces that yield the best information quickly and transparently. Nothing’s worse than having to ask for flights and pricing ten different ways at an airline website just to get basic fare and schedule data cross-referenced sufficient to make an informed decision for a purchase.

And that’s why I am so happy that in the past year or so the airline websites I use most often have drastically improved their transparency. The ones that do it best so far (in my opinion, and in no particular order) are Delta, Southwest, AirTran, American, and Continental. The Northwest site still has a ways to go to be in their league. Orbitz, though not an airline site, also does a good job of showing comprehensive combinations of fare and schedule.

Recently AA introduced a vast improvement to with their “Price & Schedule” option. It’s not only very transparent, but AA is beating the drum about it to get us to use it. You know what I mean if you got their recent funny email touting the “Search By Price & Schedule” double feature sweepstakes. Not only is the accompanying video amusing, but the new option is really good. AA brags that the “Price & Schedule” option will:

(1) Search a wider range of both price and schedule combinations.

(2) Compare how your departure and return flight options impact your total price.

(3) Instantly access additional information about travel time, AAdvantage® miles and available seats.

My experience with it so far indicates that American is living up to their claims. However, I was amused to see they used as an example in the video demo a hypothetical Gold level passenger named “John Smith” with 545,000 miles in his AAdvantage account. The mileage seemed a bit high for a Gold level guy unless he had never booked an award trip.

And the fare example AA showed in the demo was refundable between Washington and St. Louis at $104 one way (plus taxes). That fare seemed low to me to be refundable, but maybe that market has fairer fares than any of the ones I fly out of Raleigh-Durham.

My grousing aside, the AA site has benefited from the pioneering done by other airline webmeisters. It’s a little like Southwest, with strong dashes of AirTran and a few others. It’s simple and easily understandable and all on one page. It has a lot of next-level-down detailed information available if you want, too. For instance, you can get full flight details of any suggested connections and even see current seat availability for each flight.

This is a vast improvement to’s somewhat tortured booking technique prior to the intro of the “Price & Schedule” option.

The new option makes my fare trolling much easier and faster, and I feel more confidant that my purchases have been the right ones. Ditto for the other airline websites I mentioned and for Orbitz. As they perfect transparency, my query and purchase transactions become more efficient and economical.

I guess that’s good. Frankly, though, I miss calling my travel agent or an airline rez agent for quick and personalized and expert service. And I still DO call my agent at Discount Travel in Jacksonville, Florida for anything complicated.

Though much improved, web bookings remain a necessary evil.

Happy Independence Day!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sleepless In Montana

This blog is primarily about business travel, but once in awhile I write about my family’s vacation trips. Last week we visited my wife’s family in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area of Montana where they have a modest summer cabin. The Stillwater Valley is one of the most gorgeous places on earth. We had a wonderful time, as usual, this being our 13th or 14th annual visit. However, there were some challenges.

The cabin relies on a spring up the adjacent mountainside for water using an ingenious array of pipes above and below ground that my dad-in-law has engineered to provide cold and solar-heated aqua. Gravity does the rest. Now that’s OK, except when there’s been a drought. And that part of Montana (about 26 miles north of the northeast quadrant of Yellowstone National Park) has not had sufficient rainfall for several years. So the mountain spring is a trickle now instead of a stream. Thus water conservation at the cabin is mandatory: very few daily toilet flushes and days-long intervals between showers.

All that’s OK, too, until the cabin gets crowded. Which it does when all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends show up to see us and each other as they are wont to do. There just isn’t enough water or space to go around.

The cabin is small and becomes crowded fast. We had seven people there, and then four more arrived midweek, swelling it to eleven. There were already five of us in the tiny upstairs loft. Now there were two more directly beneath us on the fold-out couch, plus an uncle on the porch (in a sleeping bag on the floor), and my in-laws in the sole bedroom. That left a cousin who was going to sleep in the family car (their seats fold down to flat).

But cold and unexpected (but much-needed) rain made him choose to sleep in the recliner literally next to my bed. It was less than a foot away from where I was sleeping.

That was too much for me. My need for a modicum of privacy, already strained, went into overdrive. I left and went out to my rental car, a new Ford Explorer, folded down the back seats, and wrapped a blanket around me. I cracked the windows to avoid suffocating. By the following morning I was stiff, had thrown out my back trying to sleep like a pretzel, and I was very sleepy.

During my long night of discomfort, I decided it would be prudent to find my own place for our final two nights in Montana, and thus I spent Friday and Saturday nights in a strange place called Carter’s Camp, about 5 miles away.

I expected a bit more for $69.40 per night. My room had a huge fireplace but no heat or air-conditioning (they provided an oil space heater on request--it was unusually cold there last week). The Carter's Camp owner couldn’t even figure out how to turn on the satellite TV, nor could I, but the shower worked well—until the water went off (it was restored after a lot of work several hours later).

My room had no number—a first for me after many decades of rented accommodation. It was described to me as “the one next to the Post Office.” And sure enough, the tiny Nye, Montana P.O. was literally two steps from my front door. I guess that when you have only three rooms to rent, numbers aren’t necessary. The lock didn’t work very well, but I don’t think there was any need for worry about a break-in.

The room wasn't much; however, I thought happily, at least Carter's Camp had a bar. You see, I like bars, and I like beer, and it’s a good thing I do, because the bar turned out to be the only place where Carter’s Camp's much-vaunted wireless Internet worked. In my room, which was just 25 or so feet from the bar, my laptop’s super-charged LinkSys wireless card indicated a signal strength of 2-4%. In the bar I got as high as 91%. The owner said he should probably look into a repeater for his wireless system some day, and I concurred.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that every other word heard there at the bar started with “F”. I heard the “F” word used in every possible way: as a noun, an adjective, in several interesting verb forms, and in a myriad of combinations with other words (e.g., the oft-used “mother-F” and many, many other variants). A flurry of words not usually heard in church echoed through the deep blue haze of cigarette smoke last Friday night. No one flinched; Montanans lean strongly toward tolerance in most things.

Ah, it all brought back memories of my wild youth and being single!

Some tough dudes in that bar, diggers (miners) most of them, who work at Stillwater Mining up the road, America’s largest Platinum and Palladium mine. Those guys work underground doing extremely dangerous work, and they drink heavily when they aren’t working. And smoke nonstop. So Friday turned into something one helluva lot different from the homey environment back at the cabin.

Of course I spent a lot of time back with the family. I met my wife and kids at the bridge over the beautiful Stillwater River (which dumps into Yellowstone River some 40 miles away) not far from the family cabin (about a mile away), and we caught another big Brook Trout late Friday afternoon. I let my three year old daughter reel it in, and she was thrilled! I cleaned it for dinner before I left the cabin. Though I hated to leave my family, I was frankly glad not to be enduring another night cheek-by-jowl with ten other folks in very close quarters.

At the bar, I didn’t see any broken noses. Civilized drinkers who knew how not to go too far, it seemed, but all committed imbibers just the same. Even though I would have preferred to be with my family at the cabin, I liked the dive.

I took in a Western Garter Snake about 18 inches long because my eight year old son had picked it down by the river, and I forgot it was in my shirt pocket. Everybody there at Carter’s Camp, smoking and drinking up a storm, were fine for the little snake to wander around the bar. My kind of place.

I learned a few useful things that night in the bar. For instance, I picked up a good tip next time I go duck hunting. One of the diggers on his 10th or 11th beer was bragging (and slurring) about how the Federal Game Warden couldn’t arrest him last winter for hunting ducks even though the warden had heard him fire five or six times in rapid succession at some passing waterfowl. It’s illegal to have more than three shells in your shotgun when duck hunting, but there’s no limit to the number of shotguns you can have loaded and ready. This fellow had beat the system by keeping three shotguns by his side, thus able to fire up to nine times if need be. His strategy flummoxed the poor warden, who left the man’s duck blind with his tail between his legs. The inebriated raconteur spiced up his tale with some mighty salty language, too, adding to the fun.

As the night wore on, I also picked up plenty of tips from gregarious patrons related to the finer points of love-making, most of which sounded dubious, and one suggestion so bizarre that it would have caused a pole dancer to blush.

Before I went to bed, I bought a round of drinks for the bar. Set me back a whopping $29. Like I said, it wasn’t as good as being with my family, but life’s an adventure, and at Carter’s Camp I could at least flush the toilet whenever I wanted and put my head down to sleep without someone snoring six inches from my face.

And in the bar, the beer was kept ice cold and well-stocked in oversized coolers designed to ease the mind of anyone who might fret over the prospect of running out.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bad (Air Travel) Luck Comes In Threes…At Least Last Week

Generally I don’t believe in adages like bad luck coming in threes, but America’s airlines and air travel system handed me a trio of nasty experiences this past week. My score in three trials? Tied one (Monday, June 4), won one (Thursday, June 7), and lost one (Friday, June 8).

You can read about how I overcame my Monday, June 4th, bad luck and arrived just over an hour late by reading the previous blog post just below. I’ll call that one a TIE against the system.

I thought it was time for the pendulum to swing the other way for my trip home from Columbus to Raleigh on Thursday evening, June 7th. But it was not to be—or at least it would have been another disaster had I not done some more quick maneuvering to avoid one.

On Thursday I was scheduled to fly American Airlines home again, using AA4322 Columbus to O’Hare, which connected to AA1490 ORD to RDU. If all had gone as planned, I would have arrived Raleigh Durham at 11:15 PM. I had an ample 2 hour layover at O’Hare between flights, a nice pad against a late flight from Columbus to Chicago.

However, I received the dreaded automated call telling me that the first flight was two hours late, and I knew at once that I wasn’t going to make my connection, EVEN WITH A TWO HOUR LAYOVER.

I was just returning my rental car to Hertz at the Columbus airport when the call came, so I rushed through security and scanned the departures board, remembering that there was a nonstop Columbus-Raleigh flight in about 15 minutes. (I had not booked myself on the nonstop because I was uncertain that I could make a 3:55 PM departure after lengthy afternoon client meetings. It was also $400 more expensive.)

Sure enough, the board showed the RDU flight on time at 3:55 PM and boarding. I rushed to the gate and inquired whether I could put myself on the standby list. The flight was overbooked by one (what flights aren’t overbooked these days?), but there were two no-shows.

The American Eagle gate agent handed me a boarding pass two minutes before the door closed. We arrived RDU on schedule, a minor miracle in itself. I could not believe my good luck in even making it to the gate in time, as I had left my client’s building at 3:15 PM.

Not only did I get home much sooner than planned, but the two flights I was scheduled to fly did indeed become disasters. The CMH/ORD flight arrived almost two hours late to Chicago, and my connection limped into Raleigh at 1:23 AM Friday morning, over two hours behind schedule.

Once again I beat the odds by knowing my options and then acting nimbly. I’ll call that one a definite WIN against the system.

On Friday, June 8, I was due to take my family on two Northwest Airlines legs from Raleigh through Minneapolis to Billings, Montana, where we spend a week each summer with my in-laws in the Beartooth Mountains just north of Yellowstone. Having been the victim of bad travel experiences Monday and Thursday, I just couldn’t believe that I would be victimized a third time in five days!

How naïve of me to think there might be justice or some sense of balance in the air travel system.

As it turned out, Friday afternoon at Raleigh-Durham Airport was surreal when we arrived. Even in the worst of disruptions, I have never seen RDU so full of people, and especially families with young children, who weren’t going anywhere fast. Both the nice Delta Crown Room staff (whom I’ve known for years) and the NWA gate personnel warned of very long delays and possible cancellations due to an unstipulated ATC problem compounded by strong Midwest and Northeast winds. However, our RDU/MSP airplane managed to land at RDU, albeit late, and we arrived about an hour late to the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis/St. Paul was also chaotic once we finally got there. I was not overly concerned with our late arrival, though, because we had almost two hours of connection time.

But when I consulted the nearest Northwest info board to gate C10 once off our flight, our Billings flight was one of many cancellations. And I could NOT get through to NW’s 800 lines. There was a recording saying that “due to unusually high call volumes, we are unable to answer the phone.” Callers were given the option of using NW’s automated flight-line or being disconnected. No mention was made of what we were supposed to do if our flight was cancelled.

So I went back to the gate agent at MSP C10 where we had arrived and begged for help. She very kindly tried to call the internal (employees-only) NWA Revenue Management line but was on hold for 30 minutes. She reported that her computer screen was showing all the Billings flights over the weekend were full and overbooked. She was trying to overbook one for us because I am a Continental/Northwest Platinum. Complicating this was the fact that there are four of us in my family traveling, and getting four seats is four times as hard as getting a single seat.

Unable to get through to her own Revenue Management people, NOT EVEN ABLE TO GET ANYONE ON THE PHONE AFTER 30 MINUTES, the C10 gate agent offered some desperate alternatives: flights that were going in the general vicinity of Billings. She feared if we didn’t take one of the Friday night alternatives that we would not get to Billings until Monday.

So, gnashing my teeth over the extra $523 it would cost me for a rental car and a Friday night hotel room, I opted for Bozeman, and we made a very late flight Friday night. Once there (after 11:00 PM local time) we piled into our fire engine red Hertz Ford Explorer with 278 miles on the odometer and flew east on the Interstate until we ran out of steam in the wee hours.

We finally stopped in the tiny town of Big Timber at a Super 8 Hotel and ponied up $84 for a room. I’d already seen two fresh deer kills between Bozeman and Big Timber, with literal sheets of blood on the Interstate and the carcasses dismembered by some hapless souls making the legal Montana 75 MPH. I was exhausted and couldn’t risk killing me and my family. We made the rest of our drive Saturday morning.

Totaling the extra costs looks like this:

I had a free rental car lined up using my Hertz points at Billings—a reservation made six months in advance—but the Bozeman Hertz location is a licensee and refused to honor my free rental. Thus I had to pay for a week instead (about $440 including tax). Ka-ching!

Then there was the hotel cost at a Super 8: $84, including tax. We were supposed to be staying with my wife’s uncle and aunt in Billings, not in a hotel. Ka-ching!

$84?? I gasped at the desk clerk How could that be? Super 8 got its name from offering $8 rooms long ago! And this is Big Timber, Montana, a tank town on the Interstate, not Chicago or even Billings. Can’t you give me break?

The Super 8 desk clerk informed me that she’d already given me a break. The regular rate was $93 plus tax, and she had just two rooms left thanks to a late night cancellation. I could have it for $84 or pound sand. Either way she was going back to sleep.

Shocked that a Super 8 ANYWHERE could be routinely getting $93 for a room, I took it and shut up. I even thanked her nicely for the discount. She didn’t have to give me one, after all. Next morning there was a typical Hampton Inn-type breakfast with nice people (guests and employees), and our kids enjoyed it.

Small consolation for the extra cost and stress and uncertainty. Clearly I have to call this one a LOSS against the system.

It might have been worse: We could have been delayed in the Twin Cities for a day or two, but incurring an extra $523 in costs is definitely not a win. Nor is having to drive an extra couple of hundred miles to and from Bozeman instead of Billings.

Friday’s misery, delay, extra cost, and weariness was due in large part to our government’s inability to commit to modernizing an antiquated 1960s ATC system that was never meant to handle the volumes of today’s crowded American skies. The balance of responsibility lies, as usual, at the feet of every airline, thanks to over-scheduling their hubs.

At any rate, one win, one loss, and a draw. I hope that this string of bad luck is over with three consecutive experiences within just five days. We will see what this week brings when we return to Bozeman for our flights home…

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Travel Malcontent’s Long Summer Commences Early

American Airlines ushered me in to what promises to be a long, hard summer at the airports when they disrupted my travel plans and productivity on my first June flight this past Monday. With the kids not quite out of school and summer officially still more than two weeks away, I dread schlepping around the country between now and Labor Day.

Welcome to more airline and airport hell. If media reports are to be believed, this will be the worst summer ever. The idiots who run our airlines say that demand has finally recovered from the pre-nine-eleven doldrums after the dot-com bubble burst.

But the airlines are NOT ready to meet the demand. The usual summer surge of vacationers and kids, of course, just adds to the misery. Load factors are topped out, so when disruptions occur, there will be no surfeit of capacity on later flights to rescue stranded passengers. And we can expect delay after long delay, thanks to the airlines scheduling far more flights through major airports than the airports have capacity.

What happened to me Monday is a good example:

Flying again from Raleigh to Columbus (Ohio), I was booked on AA to connect through Chicago O’Hare. I was happy that my first flight didn’t leave until 6:55 AM, since usually I’m on 5:30-6:00 departures on Monday mornings. I could actually sleep in until 5:00 AM and still make my flight.

However, as soon as I dressed and turned on my cell phone, it beeped with a message. I thought: No problem. Just the usual two-hours-in-advance automated call from American’s computers telling me which RDU gate to go to. I was relaxed and at ease because miraculously my upgrade on the Chicago flight had come through. Even we American AAdvantage Executive Platinums don’t get upgraded all that often any more…but that’s another story.

I called my voice mail just to be sure and got the bad news: My flight was going to be 25 minutes late leaving due to “Flight Attendant legality.” I knew that meant whatever flight or flights our cabin crew had arrived RDU on Sunday night had been late, and the Flight Attendants are legally due 8 hours rest by FAA rules before they can go on duty again.

I also instantly grasped that I would miss my 40-minute connection to American Eagle at O’Hare. Best case, my connection was now cut to 15 minutes, and I knew from experience that the RDU/ORD 6:55 AM departure arrived at the very end of the “H” concourse in Chicago. AE flights leave from the “G” concourse at ORD. It’s a loooooong walk from the end of H to any G gate, more than 15 minutes.

So much, I thought, for making my ORD/CMH flight that would have arrived Columbus at 10:50 AM.

All this computed in my brain in a millisecond, and I speed-dialed the Exec Platinum desk to get a re-route. Follow-on AE connections from ORD to Columbus weren’t available until late afternoon thanks to heavy load factors, which would have killed my entire day. I don’t get paid unless I work, so that would have eliminated forever a day of income for me. I pleaded for an alternative.

By now my cab had arrived, and I was on my way to RDU. It was about 5:25 AM.

The Exec Platinum rez agent clicked away on her Sabre screen and found a connection through LGA that arrived at about 2:00 PM. Would I like that one?

No, hell no! I said, emphatically. I connected through La Guardia about 25 weeks in 2006, and it is more unreliable than ever. I’d be trading the devil for the deep blue sea if I opted to connect through LGA—like maybe arriving sometime on Tuesday afternoon.

More clicking came to my ears through the tiny, tinny cell phone speaker. Was I already at the airport? Could I perhaps make a 6:00 AM flight to Dallas/Fort Worth? I admitted that I was still 10-15 minutes from RDU, and she refused to book me through DFW, claiming I couldn’t make it. But if I COULD, the connection would arrive Columbus at noon, just an hour and ten minutes later than my original itinerary.

I thanked her, and asked exactly why the FAs were late the night before. “It appears that their inbound was late due to delays at ORD,” she admitted. Weather delays? I asked. “No,” she said, “Just the usual O’Hare congestion.”

In other words, too many flights scheduled for O’Hare to handle. I was a victim this morning of American’s over-scheduling their flights last night, and there were no better options for re-booking due to maxed-out load factors throughout Monday.

I told the taxi driver to step on it. He did, and after throwing forty bucks his way, I ran into the AA terminal and high-tailed it to the First Class security line. I had, as always, printed my boarding passes the night before, so did not have to stop at the counter. Lucky for me, the line was short, and I made it through security in record time for early Monday morning at Raleigh/Durham.

More running to the RDU Admirals Club, where, out of breath, I explained my plight to the wonderful staff there. Many of them have worked at RDU for 20 years or more. Margaret confirmed that there was one seat remaining on the DFW flight and that it was about to close. She gave me new boarding passes and admonished me to “RUN TO THE GATE! HURRY!” Margaret also told me as I was scurrying out: ”Will, the seats are not pretty—you are NOT going to like them.”

I did as I was told and RAN to the gate. And made it, barely. As I boarded, the last one on, the FA informed me all overhead space was gone and that I’d have to check my bag.

No problem, I said, calmly and evenly. I just won’t be flying on this flight, since I never check my bag. As in NEVER, EVER. She found room in an overhead compartment after all, and I squeezed into middle seat 12E between two large and sullen people for my two and a half hour flight to DFW. With me in place, we now had a triplet of large and sullen passengers in seats 12DEF. Unlike me, however, my seatmates looked as if they would have been at home slurping suds and ogling the strippers at the Bada Bing in The Sopranos. But at least they didn’t talk much.

A well of memories from a lifetime of flying regarding the extreme discomfort of center seats proved, sadly, to be all too accurate and vivid. The flight was sheer misery.

Except for one bright spot: The FA who had confronted me about my carry-on came back from First Class and took my jacket (I was wearing a suit and Hermes tie and looked pretty spiffy). She sincerely apologized for losing her cool with me and explained that she had been under such work stress over the just-ended weekend that she had actually been reduced to tears from exhaustion on her last flight the night before. I told her to forget it, and thanked her sincerely for taking my suit coat.

Later the same FA snuck a biscuit and butter to me from First Class (to the apparent consternation of my dour seatmates, whom she assiduously ignored). I felt sorry for the Flight Attendant, and when I left the plane I gave her my last AA “good job” coupon that American sends periodically to very frequent flyers to reward employees who do a good job. She seemed genuinely grateful for such a small gesture of good will on my part. I certainly appreciated her helpfulness while wedged into 12E.

I had an equally lousy seat on the connecting flight from DFW to Columbus, but lucked out at the gate. I told the agent what had happened to me, and he put me on the upgrade list ten minutes before the flight began boarding. He told me it was useless because every seat was full and the flight overbooked. However, a first class passenger misconnected (Imagine that!), and they gave me his seat at the very last minute. Consequently, from the vantage point of seat 3A, my flight to Columbus was much better than the one from Raleigh had been.

So I flew 2,000 miles to DFW and back to Columbus, and it took 6 hours altogether. It’s 361 miles as the crow flies from Raleigh to Columbus, a one hour flight on the rare nonstop. Ridiculous.

There’s another conundrum: American KNEW Sunday night that its Chicago flight leaving Raleigh at 6:55 AM Monday was going to be late due to the cabin crew mandated rest period. Their computers automatically track misconnects like mine, and there were undoubtedly others who were likewise affected. Why had AA not contacted me Sunday night? I could have made alternate flight plans Sunday night instead of enduring the madcap comedy rush Monday morning early, barely making the RDU/DFW flight.

I made it to Columbus with only a 70 minute delay because of my experiential knowledge of alternatives, because of my persistence and insistence, and thanks to just plain dumb luck. It was NOT because of ANY proactive work on American Airlines’ part, despite the fact that I am one of their top-tier flyers and best customers.

I expect this experience will be repeated with different circumstances and permutations throughout the summer. At least I know what to do when something like this happens, although the outcome is not always so favorable as it was for me on Monday.

But what in God’s name do the less-experienced folk do?