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, January 31, 2008

The Chaos of Booking

January 31st already? It's hard to believe one-twelfth of the year is already over. As the leap year long month of February beckons tomorrow, so does my monthlong sojourn working in London. I won't be home again until March 1st, which seems distant at the moment.

Getting ready for this trip was not as easy as I had imagined. Originally intending to fly directly to London via American's daily nonstop 777 from Raleigh/Durham, I dug around the website back in late December and early this month looking for a decent business class fare.

There were no reasonable fares to be found, however. I don't know about other folks, but "reasonable" to me means something along the lines of $3,500 or so round trip. And I think that's stretching the meaning of "reasonable," especially given the very uncomfortable new AA business class seats (about which I wrote a blog entry in November or December).

Cheapest business seats I could find on the RDU/LGW nonstop were nudging up towards $7,000 with all taxes added, almost twice what I was mentally budgeting. Time to cash in some miles for an upgrade, I thought.

Though I will lose my American Airlines Executive Platinum status at the end of February, it's still intact for the moment, and so I next phoned AA direct to see about using miles to upgrade from one of the hefty coach fares that allow it. I had forgotten that mileage upgrades on AA now cost 50,000 miles PLUS a $600 co-payment EACH WAY, but I was soon set straight on that matter by a nice AA telephone rez agent.

Gulping hard to think that I would have to spend 100,000 hard-earned AAdvantage miles plus another $1,200 ON TOP OF a coach fare nearing $1,500 round trip, I tepidly agreed to do it.

$2,700 plus 100,000 AAdvantage miles. Goodness, I thought!

But I didn't have to spend that much after all, since there were no upgrades to business class available on the nonstop flight returning on March 1st even at those extravagant prices. Not even for Executive Platinums? I asked. Nope, came the reply, the entire business cabin is already sold out.

Holy mackerel! AA is sure popular these days.

So I did some snooping around the usual portals looking for bargains through connecting cities, like Chicago and JFK. I widened my search to include not just AA, but Continental, Delta, and a few others. And I did find some relative bargains out of JFK on several legacy carriers at around $3,600 round trip, which were apparently matching MaxJet (now defunct), EOS, and SilverJet.

But I would still have to purchase a separate RDU/JFK ticket to get those fares. As soon as I tried RDU/LON (Gatwick or Heathrow), the business fares would go through the ceiling. Splitting the tickets brought them down again.

On AA there were no reasonable fares out of JFK to LHR, however. Cheaper fares on AA were only offered to STN (Stansted), obviously in an attempt to compete with EOS Airlines.

Having wasted a good deal of time now looking for a decent fare, I did what I should have done in the first place: I called Steve Crandell, owner of Discount Travel in Jacksonville, Florida. Steve's an expert at locating cheaper business and first class seats on international flights (and domestic ones, too).

No joy was to be had through him, either, even though Steve did his usual bang-up job researching every airline and every gateway. Seems the U.S. legacy carriers have wised up and priced their premium cabins through the roof because they can. They must be getting the traffic, despite what appears to me to be a surfeit of capacity in a traditionally low-travel season.

After considering several foreign carriers, I settled on EOS Airlines, with a connection to JFK on AA. All in, including all taxes, travel agency fees, and both EOS and AA tickets, I paid $3,493 round trip. I am looking forward to trying EOS, which I have avoided until now only because I was always able to find a decent fare on a traditional carrier like AA which had the benefit of boosting my mileage and thus retaining my precious elite status (God knows, the FF miles alone are worth less and less every day).

This marks another big step away from my decades of loyalty to AA, Delta, CO, and NW. Last year I took my family to Africa and used Emirates from London, another diversion of money and miles from the majors. Gradually I am weaning myself off the FF loyalty programs that have held me in a fever since 1981, and I am not worried about it.

In fact I can hardly wait to try EOS Airlines!

Chances are good that I will be going to and from London regularly starting in March. And I doubt I will now be using one of the U. S. airlines to do it.

On the matter of booking a London hotel for my 25 nights of residency, I will be briefer. Since I was told by my client that the London hotel market is softening and that deals are to be found in the dead of winter, I expected to be offered reasonable accommodation prices and maybe even a sweetener or two (Concierge upgrade, free Internet, that sort of thing).

Didn't happen. The same booking chaos gripped me for two weeks trying to find that rarest of deals: a good hotel in central London for under £200/night.

Our client is a giant conglomerate that spans the globe and has posh offices close to Paddington. Thus I first used their Hilton discount number, which they graciously gave me, to attempt booking at the very nice Hilton London Paddington, which is within walking distance. The cheapest corporate rate at that Hilton property under the client's discount scheme is £179, and that rate includes nothing except room + all taxes. For instance, Internet is an extra £15/day ($30).

When contacting Hilton, however, I was informed that the Hilton London Paddington had reached an occupancy level that would not allow me to use the client's discount rate, and that the only rooms available there were £299/night ($600). Plus Internet, plus meals, plus everything else, of course. Oh, and no rooms at all were available for some of the nights I needed.

Feeling like a boxer who had just taken a stunning blow to the head, I asked about the other London Hilton properties. All were £155 a night or higher, and the cheapest so distant that I dithered about booking.

After investigating other hotel chains, such as the Millennium, I went back to the Hilton once more the next day. But some of the best rates were already gone for the dates I needed. I eventually settled on the Hilton London Metropole on Edgeware Road at £179/night ($360, plus, plus, plus), and when a colleague tried to book in there three days later he was not able to do better than £199.

So what's going on with the airlines going to London and the hotels in London? Why is there such chaos, and how do they get away with such exhorbitant prices? The stock markets are gloomy, and economists say we are in a recession, or nearly there. Too, there are more seats than ever over the Atlantic to London and more hotel rooms than ever in London. Yet the pricing for both air travel and hotel space there seems absurd to me. I've been traveling worldwide for decades, and to the U.K. fairly often, and it feels to me like the steep rises in costs have only really taken hold in the past year or so.

I have no answers. I hope that, like the U. S. housing market, there will be a correction soon in premium cabin air fares and central London hotel rooms. And I hope that, regardless of price, the process of booking either one becomes easier.

Next week, if time permits, I will write a post on public transport options from Stansted (where EOS lands) to central London.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ethereal, Limpid, Utterly Sincere, Humble Music

I've come across a music DVD so special that I've been trying to figure out how to make a recommendation relevant to a business travel blog. I think I can easily justify it this way:

We should all be armed with reading, listening, and watching material when hitting the road for those occasions when travel potholes break an axle, as so often happens these days. Next time you find yourself stuck on a runway forever, or unexpectedly in a hotel room after O'hare closes (again), or waiting four hours for your airplane to arrive from Philly, fire up your laptop, put on your headphones, and pop in the DVD of Neil Young's HEART OF GOLD.

Then prepare to be taken out of yourself and into another realm of consciousness. Mr. Young's astonishing performance is the perfect tonic to overcome travel anguish.

First, a confession: I was a big Neil Young Fan when I was young. I am now 59. Over thirty years have passed, and I lost touch with him as a musician while my musical taste led me to classic jazz and Delta blues. (For over five years in the 90s I was the Executive Producer for Robert Parker's Jazz Classics In Stereo weekly one hour radio programs on Public Radio International.)

Neil Young recently came back to my attention as one of the owners and developers of a fantastic new electronic control system for Lionel O-gauge model trains called the Legacy system. As an avid model railroader, I was impressed with the Legacy product and especially by Mr. Young's attention to his customer base and commitment to improving the first generation system through direct customer feedback.

Neil Young is completely open to criticism, inviting identification and discussion of all valid issues on a model railroader Internet forum, and then inculcating lessons learned into product optimization. Who does that these days?

Since his music was important to me when I was young and stupid, would it still be, I wondered, now that I am old and stupid?

So I started digging around to see where his career had led him, and I came across this DVD, Heart Of Gold, and I bought it to reacquaint myself with the man and his music. It is a 2006 film of Mr. Young's performance, with friends such as Emmylou Harris, in Nashville, and it was directed by Jonathan Demme, famous for movies like Silence of the Lambs.

I bought the DVD out of curiosity; I was unprepared for my reaction to Mr. Young's performance.

Simply put, it is stunningly beautiful music that comes across, as my title says, utterly sincere. Mr. Young's youthful eclectic creativity has grown and matured. His instrumental and vocal deliveries are deeply emotional without being in the least affected. His songs are tone poems.

Mr. Young's on-stage fellow performers are all close friends who share his inner rhythm and his dreams, and it shows. Their musicianship is as perfected as Mr. Young's, and in absolute harmony.

The result is something rare and difficult to describe. The music and the performances are ethereal and deeply moving. It comes directly from Mr. Young's heart without filters or distortion.

I recommend this DVD without reservation or qualification. It has become a cliche to describe something as "spiritually uplifting," but if Neil Young's performances on this DVD don't make you feel not just better, but HAPPY and glad to be alive, then you probably need a shrink.

Next week I will attempt to describe how very difficult it has become to find and book a hotel room in London and to select the best London-bound business class options.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


That's the feeling that instantly grips me when I contemplate returning to the road full time at the end of this month, as it seems likely that I will do.

We all know why, because we all suffer the same experiences. Sometimes it's like being nibbled to death by ducks. Consider these examples of nibbling:
  • The incessant security hassles
  • Surly and just plain ignorant gate agents
  • Last minute gate changes at ATL from the "T" concourse to the "E" concourse
  • No place to sit or plug in your laptop in the airline club
  • Late arrivals
  • Late departures
  • Center seats
  • RJs
  • "Sorry, sir, no upgrades available"
  • Waiting 45 minutes for your checked bag to arrive at the carousel
  • No pillows or blankets on long flights
  • Broken seats and inoperative video systems on overseas flights
  • Long takeoff runway waits
  • The tyranny of on-board announcements you've heard for 40 years, and broadcast way too loud by a baritone FA or pilot who wants you to know every last detail of the flight
  • Last minute aircraft changes which cause you to lose your precious aisle seat or upgrade
  • The tyranny of TV monitors in gate areas turned up to maximum volume and cawing ceaslessly about the latest celebrity hangnail or sex-change operation in the brief moments between commercials, which are even louder than the programming
  • "Sorry, sir, but the only car we have left is a Yugo"
  • Waiting 30 minutes for the car rental shuttle and then it's SRO (at ORD Hertz and Avis busses have many times actually passed by the American pick-up too full to stop, with the driver shrugging at the hapless souls, me among them, shivering in the frigid air)
  • "Sorry, sir, but we have only smoking rooms left, and nothing's available on the concierge floor."
I could go on, but you get the point. In fact, I would appreciate comments adding to the list above. It might be fun to develop a definitive list.

And that's just the LITTLE things. How about these somewhat bigger problems:
  • "Your flight has been cancelled. Please join the conga line snaking around the corner way down there with one agent working to see about rebooking. This gate area is now closed. Goodbye."
  • "Sorry, sir, but the hotel is full due to the snow closure of O'Hare, but we found a room for you at a Hilton in Evansville, Indiana."
  • [When calling the airline Elite line]: "Due to weather-related cancellations throughout the country, no agents are available. Please call back a week from Tuesday, and thank you for your loyalty to XYZ Airlines. We appreciate your business sooooooooo much!" [Click]
  • Missed connection after the last onward flight has departed for the day due to late inbound flight
And those, of course, are but a small handful of the rotten tomatoes hurled from unseen hands on routine trips to the airport. Again, it might be fun, in a warped sort of way, to compile a complete list of such unfortunate events, and I invite comments with additions.

I remember the transition back to the road. Pretty soon dread turns to resignation, like the reluctant acceptance one feels when suffering through a daylong sinus headache.

In addition to the sadness I feel at being away from family 71.43% of every week, I get to run the taxi-airport-airline-airport-rental car-hotel-rental car-airport-airline-airport-taxi gauntlet as well, every week, week in and week out.

On the slightly brighter side, Joe Brancatelli (rightly) reminds us from time to time that we who must travel all the time are the lucky ones. There are remarkable experiences that come our way with in-person exposure to all corners of the real world, opportunities which the vast majority of people never have.

I strive to be optimistic, and I do love my work. It's challenging and fun, and involves constant imagination and creativity to find solutions to knotty problems. Best of all, constant interaction with interesting people ensures that consulting is never dull. Those job characteristics hook a lot of people into consulting (surprisingly, it's rarely the money that keeps us in the game).

Those positive considerations round off the sharpest edges of the awful dread I feel in pondering my return to the grind. But it would be wrong to say that I am looking forward to telling the taxi driver, when he asks where I'm going, "RDU Airport, please."

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Random Reflections On 2007, and A Lament Or Two

Looking back on travel during the year just ended, I realize that, despite the travails we all face at the airports these days, I collected some good experiences. Of course there were a few lamentable ones, too.

January flying reminded me that Northwest Airlines can do a good job, especially in Minnesota, and Hertz astonished me by running out of cars on a sunny weekday at O'Hare and then not handling it well.

In February I survived a trip to Bob Dylan's home town of Hibbing, Minnesota, battling arctic temps of 38 below zero. The same month saw me enjoying a civilized few days in Portland, Oregon, where, among other observations, I marveled at their extensive and ever-growing rail transit system.

In March AirTran surprised me again with their decent and on-time service, which made our visit to New Orleans for the French Quarter Festival even more relaxing. In the same month, the State Department botched my passport renewal, and I drove 873 miles in a Hertz car Raleigh to Chicago and back rather than fly just to prove to myself it could be done (and to get a breather from air travel).

April was an exciting month. My family and I spent two weeks at the wonderful Kruger National Park in South Africa. After enjoying superb service on Emirates Air in first class from London to Johannesburg and back through Dubai, American Airlines welcomed me home by filling the cabin of my first stateside flight with smoke and scaring the bejesus out of me (and all else aboard).

May flying began with much to complain about: I was held captive on 10 flights in a single week. Trying to make the best of it, however, a May blog entry suggested ways and means to deflect the worst pain in such situations. I also wrote about running into the pilot of the AA flight which filled with smoke.

June saw me in Montana, sleepless, in a funny-sad family situation that had its upbeat moments despite the way Northwest Airlines beat us up getting out there from Raleigh and cost us hundreds of dollars for unplanned hotels and rental cars. I also mused on how AA followed NW's lead by beating up its passengers even on direct flights on little old ERJs between Raleigh and Columbus.

I watched July travel woes sitting on the sidelines on the North Carolina outer banks and not missing the Chinese water torture of the airports. But I enjoyed reading about the misery I was missing in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal between swims.

August was a great month for travel for me. I took my eight year old son on two western trips to visit railroad museums and to ride behind Union Pacific's big Northern class 4-8-4 steam locomotive number 844. It was a big thrill for us both, and the flights to Denver and back were without incident. I was delighted with the public transportation options in Denver these days (great bus and rail), as I was in Portland earlier in the year. I was not so pleased with the sky-high prices of hotel rooms in the Mile High City.

September turned out to be a quiet, stress-free month for flying, too, with good experiences on AirTran (again!) to Atlanta and on US Airways to Philly, one of its worst operations, on a rainy 9/11. My worries about the convergence of US Airways, PHL, rain, and the 9/11 anniversary were unrealized. Which proves that nothing about contemporary flying is predictable.

An October trip with a lifelong friend to Airzona and the Grand Canyon proved to be just as weird as my Montana jaunt in June. The flights out and back were actually on time; even with tight AA connections between distant DFW gates, we made them in both directions. It's been just 18 months since my last trip through PHX Sky Harbour Airport, but it seemed to have morphed again into something, well, even larger than its former bloated self.

In November I took my family on a wonderful vacation to Germany, about which I wrote extensively. Having lived in Munich in the mid-1970s, and having visited many times since, I nonetheless wondered at the city's fantastic urban transit system. A family of four can travel anywhere within Munich's "inner ring" via bus, tram, or underground (S-Bahn and U-Bahn network) for a mere €9 for one day or €21 for three days. Such a bargain! And once again I ask why we don't develop such marvelous public transit systems for our 300 million citizens.

December was the quietest month for me. For the first time in many years my family and I stayed home for the holidays. Usually in December we flit around the world to some very remote and exotic location because the kids are out of school, and we are governed by their academic calendar. I did not board a single flight all month, and it was the best gift of all for the holidays: to be home with my family and not have to face off with any airline, rental car company, or hotel.

January is now upon us, however, and plans are laid for more air travel in the coming weeks. Having witnessed the holiday meltdown of United and the recent winter storm-related ordeals of many travelers throughout the west, midwest, and northeast, I can't say that I'm bursting with excitement at the prospect of heading for the airport again.