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, September 30, 2008

The Other Important Relationship Between Airlines and Bankers

In his September 23rd column for Conde Nast Portfolio, Joe Brancatelli writes about how airlines depend upon bankers' butts in First and Business class seats to make money, especially NEW YORK bankers. And we all know that group of animals is fast headed for the Endangered Species list even under the strict definitions of the extinction-loving "W" administration.

The rest of us on any given flight are, in the words of at least one airline exec, mere "ballast," a necessary evil to be tolerated in the back of the plane so the big money boys up front will have lots of flights to choose from between city pairs.

(You can read Joe's entire column at:

I'm sure that's true, too. Thirty years of up-close-and-personal experience flying "sharp end" millions of miles all over the globe gave me plenty of opportunities to chat up my premium cabin neighbors. Sure enough, many of them toiled in the financial services sector in one capacity or another.

Everything Joe wrote rings true (not that I ever doubted him), but there's another reason that airlines desperately need bankers: cash. Airlines burn through cash faster than corn passes through a goose.

Everyday airline operations are extremely expensive (labor, maintenance, airport leases, fuel, landing fees, insurance--the list is endless). Then there are the heavy capital costs related to buying airplanes and other equipment, keeping parts on hand, building big hangars, running gigantic computer networks--another long list.

Oh, and all those costs are steadily rising, too, many at a rate faster than fare increases can keep up with (think: aviation fuel).

Add to this the fact that airline margins even in the best of times (whatever that means for the commerical aviation business) are razor thin, as airline so-called managers constantly remind us.

The summation of these unhappy realities is that airlines have been described by at least one esteemed economist as merely:

"... cash accumulators for other constituencies."

What this means, of course, is that airlines have so many chronic cash needs that they act like a sieve for money. Dumptruck loads of dollars constantly flow in the top of the airline sieve and get quickly sifted out the bottom to pay creditors and vendors. There's little or nothing left over most days, and especially not when demand dips faster than the airline can react to reduce its costs.

Let us not forget to consider seasonal air travel demand, too. It may be a predictable fluctuation, but there's only so many variable expenses to run up or down. The relentless fixed costs must be paid even during expected demand troughs when the revenue faucet turns to a trickle.

This is where the bankers come in, but this time in their professional role as money-lenders, not in their spending role as high-paying customers. Cash-hungry airlines depend utterly on bank lines of credit to fund their operations through demand valleys. Otherwise they'd go broke.

And we all know at least one certainty to expect from the Wall Street debacle still unfolding: No matter how things are resolved, credit is going to dry up, and what's left will be a lot harder to qualify for and much more expensive.

Where will that leave the airlines? Nobody knows. Even McDonald's recently reported difficulty securing adequate credit lines to fund its food-buying operation, and their business is less risky, more predictable, and has better margins than the airline industry's.

If you were a banker with only a handful of shekels to lend, and you had to choose between two credit risks, McDonald's and an airline, which business would you give the money to?

We've all been chattering about how airports and air flights will be less crowded and less stressful in the aftermath of the current meltdown, but what if some airlines disappear when their credit lines are shut off?

I was in Sydney, Australia that terrible Monday, 9/11/01. I was still there four days later, on Friday, September 15, 2001, when Ansett Airlines, the second largest air carrier Down Under, failed and shut down all operations right after midnight.

In one instant, all Ansett tickets were rendered worthless; Ansett frequent flyers lost all their foolishly banked miles; Ansett passengers were stranded all over the country where their last plane landed; shareholders were wiped out; thousands of direct and support jobs were lost; banks lost the loans and credit lines due them; government tax authorities lost important revenue streams.

It was sheer bedlam all over Australia that day and that weekend, and for weeks afterwards it was near impossible to get a flight to anywhere from anywhere on the only remaining options, Qantas and Virgin.

We're a whole lot bigger than Australia, and we have tons more air capacity, but still, it gives me pause to consider the impact of one or more major carriers going under all at once because the high-roller bankers who aren't flying any more won't lend their dollars any more, either.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Two Times to Washington, D.C., Twice at the Hay-Adams Hotel

Recently I've made two trips to our nation's capital, one with my family over Labor Day weekend via Amtrak, which went smooth as silk, and the other a business trip by car on notoriously snarled I-95 which also, amazingly, went well.

Amtrak north of Raleigh is often very late due to the congestion of freight traffic, other Amtrak trains, and VRE (Virginia Railway Express) commuter trains. While this is especially true north of Richmond, the CSX Railway infrastructure is at or beyond its capacity everywhere, thanks to the company having pulled up most of its double track back in the 70s and 80s during the rail merger periods when traffic volumes were dropping like a rock.

Building back that double track capacity is extremely expensive and time-consuming, and the CSX has been in a cat fight with a British investment firm over capital expenditures just like that. The UK company TCI (The Children's Investment) wants to milk CSX for profits and not spend the millions needed for such capacity improvements. While they duke it out, Amtrak patrons suffer on trains routinely many hours behind the published schedules.

However, my family and I lucked out over the Labor Day weekend: Our trains were on time going north to DC and bringing us home again. This fact is a tribute to Amtrak management doggedly making their cash-starved system work (the Bush administration hates Amtrak and has tried for 8 years to kill it) and to CSX for expertly balancing train operations over its over-taxed trackage. Kudos to both!

We bought Business Class seats in the sole Business Class car on the Carolinian (Amtrak trains 80 northbound and 79 southbound) in both directions. It was just another $22 each and well worth it. There is a good deal of extra space in the Business Class car, and complimentary nonalcoholic beverages are periodically provided from a cart.

No wifi on those Amtrak trains, but my cell phone worked most places en route, and there are 120v outlets at every seat if you want to plug in your laptop or portable DVD player. We preferred to enjoy the passing scenery.

Not everything was perfect. Amtrak does not assign seats in advance, so it's catch-as-catch-can finding even two seats together, let alone four. This was especially true over busy Labor Day weekend. Amtrak personnel I spoke with said every train is now full every day since gas prices spiked during the summer, too.

So we boarded our car in Raleigh to find few empty seats. The car attendant northbound was dumb as a post, and she could not figure out how to assign four seats close together for our family despite the fact that several people offered to move to accommodate us. She didn't want to have to change her seat assignment card, which she had annoted in ink--too confusing, she admitted [!].

We had to split up in seats half the car apart. The attendant remonstrated me for trying to work out local solutions by negotiating with fellow travelers. We were lucky, she scolded, even to have two seats together. Did she, I asked, think that we would allow our children, ages 9 and 5, to sit alone with strangers? Well, of course, she said, nonplussed as to why that might be a problem.

And that was that. We had been marked as trouble-makers in her book from the start, and she treated us poorly the entire trip up to Washington.

We enjoyed the journey despite the frigid temperatures in all the cars we wandered through. True, it was hovering in the nineties outside, but Amtrak conductors told me that they always bring sweaters because Amtrak cars have only one A/C setting for any weather: full-on arctic blast. The alternative, they said, is unbearable heat, and there's nothing in-between.

The iciest air seemed to be found in the dinette, to which we ambled many times to give the kids a chance to burn off some energy. Temps there must have been around 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold that patrons bought food and immediately left to return to their own cars rather than sit at the adjacent dinette car tables.

The dinette on the return trip was also cold, but the view from the dinette tables of the passing scene was so good that we bundled up and watched from there over many miles.

We found the Amtrak personnel on board both trains, with the exception of our incompetent, weak-minded northbound Business Class car attendant, to be extraordinarily good-natured and helpful. How they maintain their cheer and ebullience I haven't the foggiest, since Amtrak has had a target on its back for several administrations, a perennial unloved whipping boy.

You can see the budget cuts in the threadbare cars and engines, yet somehow Amtrak soldiers on, and on these trains at least, it is still a great way to travel. It's very relaxing and, well, civilized: no airport hassles (we arrived at the station 10 minutes prior to train time and did not have to suffer through security scrutiny); no claustrophobia (seats are very roomy even in standard coach, and like airline domestic first class in Business Class); and no fascist rules about staying in your seat (Amtrak seats don't even have belts, and one is free to wander all over the train at any time without any restrictions). All in all, it was a great trip, and we will definitely do it again, perhaps to New York next time.

Once arrived at the gorgeous Washington Union Station, we hailed a taxi and enjoyed a short ride to our hotel, the Hay-Adams, on the north side of Lafayette Square adjacent to the White House.

Our driver was a native South Carolinian, an elderly gent, who moved to DC, he said, in 1958. Amazingly, he has been witness to a half century of 10 Presidents--Eisenhour, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, and W. And in the short space of time driving he gave us his view of how things had changed in the capital: not much until 9/11/01. Since then, he related, Washington has become a fortress, with streets closed off and its historic small-town air of Southern gentility dissipated. I wanted to pursue the discussion, but we had arrived at the Hay-Adams, and we disembarked.

Little doubt exists in my mind that the Hay-Adams Hotel is a fine property, one of the few anywhere I might call incomparable. Perhaps it's just because I like small, old, authentic boutique hotels (think: London) rather than sparkling new behemoth hotels with pretensions of granduer.

Nor, for that matter, am I fond of properties which style themselves as "boutique" when in fact they are merely small and ridiculously expensive and stock some frou-frou toiletries made in Bhutan and tied up with fancy colored twine (think: Los Angeles).

Of course nothing at the Hay-Adams comes cheap. Their cute little motto is "Nothing is overlooked except the White House," an immodest reference to the best location in the city, directly across Lafayette Square from the president's mansion. Across the street, too, is the venerable St. John's Episcopal Church, where every U. S. president since James Madison has worshipped at one time or another. The Hay-Adams is proud of it place in the capital and in history.

Some of the shenanigans associated with the hotel are not ones they advertise, though. New York's Governor Spritzer is reputed to have trysted with his hooker friend in the Hay-Adams' Off The Record bar in the semi-basement.

I myself spent two happy evenings on my second visit at the hotel drinking and eating in the Off The Record bar, and though it sounds like a cliche, I didn't have to strain to overhear several tables of White House staffers loudly bragging about their jobs, name-dropping famous or infamous personages they claimed to have rubbed shoulders with, and, yes, even talking about policy decisions they took credit for influencing or making. If my little two-night data point is any indication, one could learn a lot about Washington hanging around the Off The Record bar frequently.

Over Labor Day I used Joe Brancatelli's recommendation for a hotel booking service,, to make reservations at the Hay-Adams for just $234/night. This was a tremendous bargain at ANY hotel in the area. I was told by a close friend and colleague on my second visit a week later than even the Super 8 Motel was charging $260/night, and it's almost impossible to find any name-brand property in the city or northern Virginia for under $300/night (as will be abundantly demonstrated when I describe the circumstances of my second visit one week later).

Thus I was elated when the hotel generously assigned my family to a beautiful room, 206, overlooking Lafayette Park. In winter when the leaves are off the trees, the view from 206 would include the White House. As it was, I did ask for a room with a view of the White House, and for another $100/night my wish would have been granted.

The room was superbly appointed, with high ceilings, beautiful fixtures, very comfortable beds, and a small but fine bathroom. Importantly to my wife and me, our kids enjoyed it and had plenty of room to run around endlessly, as kids of their age do, laughing and expending their apparently limitless energy.

We dined two mornings in the hotel's Lafayette Restaurant, which also overlooks the park, with very large windows bringing in lots of sun with the powerful view. Powerful, indeed, as the waiter informed us that we were seated at the table where Kissinger had dined with his own family in the past, and a number of other notables and potentates were enumerated for our pleasure as we pondered the menu.

$120 poorer and an hour later, we quit the dining room for our day of walking to various places of interest. Sticker shock for breakfast at the Lafayette comes when seeing that even a modest stack of 3 pancakes is priced at $16, not including breakfast meat. Applewood bacon is an extra $11, for instance. We enjoyed such a bargain rate at the Hay-Adams, the staff was so attentive, and the food was so delicious that I didn't complain, however.

I won't go into all we did as a family in the city, but I do recommend the (free) National Botanic Gardens, located just to the right of the Capitol reflecting pool. We also got a glimpse of W as he and his motorcade sped by us mere inches away as we crossed the street near the Washington Monument.

As I mentioned above, our return trip to Raleigh on Amtrak was also pleasant and on time, made more so by a truly great Business Car attendant named Tony Rios. His good humor and willingness to help were deeply appreciated, and his work ethic, intelligence, and attitude did much to dispell the bad taste lingering from the Business Car attendant we'd survived on the way up, one Ms. P. Garrett. My kids even said they hoped that next time we take Amtrak that Mr. Rios is on board to greet us!

Just a week later, and on very short notice, I found myself attending two days of meetings on Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0 with leading expert Dion Hinchcliffe in Washington and Alexandria. Because the first all-day session was to be held just a block away from the Hay-Adams Hotel, and because I could not find any reasonable hotel rate in the area, I chose to spend a bit extra and stay again at the Hay-Adams.

Except this time, instead of the bargain basement price of $234/night, the rate was $485/night. Plus tax, of course.

And this time I would have to drive up, as air fares were all over $600 round trip (heck, it's just 300 miles Raleigh to Washington), and Amtrak's schedules could not accommodate the short notice. I gulped hard, made the Hay-Adams booking, and took off on I-95 north, expecting a long, hard trip in the typically horrible traffic north of Richmond around Washington.

I got lucky again, I guess, because I arrived at the Hay-Adams, trusty Magellan GPS on my dash to guide me, at 5:30 PM, having left Raleigh just 4 hours earlier (Amtrak takes about 6 hours). No, I didn't break the speed limit, at least not more than 5 MPH over anywhere on the drive.

Parking costs came to $39.20 plus tax, and I said goodbye to my car for two days. I'd saved a lot on airfare and railfare, so in the balance I was still ahead. Approaching the front desk for check-in, I expected the same genial treatment my family and I had received a week before. But I was to be very disappointed.

I'd worn a tie on the trip in case of a last minute team dinner, and so I was well-dressed--better dressed than when I'd brought my family up for the holiday weekend. No matter. The front desk staffer, a young woman named Laura, wanted to give me an interior room facing another hotel wall for $485. This angered me, and I decided to put up a fight, albeit a polite one.

After I quietly explained to Laura that I wanted an outwardly-facing room with windows on the real world, I was told for another $100 I could have it. Absurd, I said, I am already paying almost $500/night. Laura clicked away on her computer, leaving me standing there beginning to doubt my decision to book into the property and wondering why they would treat any guest this way.

After what seemed an eternity, when she realized that I wasn't going to capitulate, or even to say anything further, Laura suggested that she indeed had a good room, 208, and that it faced Lafayette Park. Yes, I know the location, I said, because my family stayed in 206 just last week, and that adjacent room will be perfect.

Not so fast. Laura said it would cost "quite a bit more" for me to have that room. I was seething by this time, but didn't show much of it. What a way to treat any customer, trying to gouge another C-note or better per night on top of a half a grand already.

Are they really that desperate, or just greedy and arrogant? I wondered whether she had been trained to squeeze their customers this way. In any event, of course, I knew that the Hay-Adams had lost me as a customer forever after this stay because of the indiginity and trouble Laura was subjecting me to. But I needed to be satisfied with this stay--my last--so I quietly told her that was not acceptable.

Would I then take the interior room offered? she asked. No, I said, I would walk, and I would never again return to the Hay-Adams if she didn't put me in 208 for the exorbitant price I was already committed to paying. What happened, I asked, to my American Express Platinum Travel Service complimentary upgrade and other PTS benefits? They don't apply, Laura said, because I'd booked directly with the hotel. No courtesy? I asked. Silence.

Finally, after endless key tapping (she could have composed a doctoral thesis with fewer keystrokes), Laura asked me to wait, another slight. I sat in the chairs adajacent to the front desk for 10 minutes, knowing that whatever happened I would never return to the Hay-Adams. Finally Laura brought me a room key and my credit card. I had been assigned room 208 after all, and for the rate I'd booked.

The room was fine, like its sister room next door where I'd stayed with my family, but the bloom was off the rose at the Hay-Adams for me. I recalled that Joe Brancatelli had once overnighted there, and they gave him a room with a Murphy bed, for God's sake! What an insult. Maybe management has been drinking too much of their own kool-aid and only want the Kissingers, Bushes, and Clintons of the world in their lobby. Whatever the reason for the mean-spirited treatment I received, I will not be back there.

The rest of my stay was mostly fine. I had some trouble the first night with the Internet service. The Hay-Adams does not, at least, charge extra for the service, and they offer both wireless (if you can pick it up) and wired (Ethernet cable). Like most hotels, though, they contract with an outside vendor for the service and are totally dependent upon them for the quality.

When I phoned Nathan, the engineer on duty (the front desk expressed complete ignorance of the problem or how to rectify it) on the first night to complain that the service was down, he politely referred me to an 800 number for their Internet vendor. I objected strenuously, saying that the hotel can't sidestep responsibility for any service they provide.

To my surprise, Nathan agreed with me, and apologized for having to give me their number. He felt he was not doing his duty to Hay-Adams guests and was frustrated; however, he was following orders. I thanked him for his candor, gave up on the Internet, and went down to the Off The Record bar for a drink and some food. Heck, how dare I expect the Internet service to work for a mere $500/night?

I have always loved bars, at least classy ones, and the Off The Record bar, located a half-flight down from the lobby and facing Lafayette Park, wasn't bad. It has the requisite dark mahogany wood throughout and red velvet trappings. The somewhat low ceiling gave it a closed-in feeling that I didn't care for, but overall it carried on the fine tradition of civilized places to imbide and have a bite.

Fond of single malt whiskies as I am, the frustration of dealing with rude Laura and a balky Internet service melted away with my first Dalwhinnie on the rocks ($14). Ordering a second round, on a whim I asked for the cheese plate off the bar menu, which promised 4 "artisan cheeses" for just $18 (a relative bargain compared with my $120 breakfasts of a week prior).

While waiting I enjoyed eavesdropping on the surrounding tables filled with White House staffers bragging about who had the biggest pair. This would be a great place, I thought, for a foreign spy to hang out.

The cheese plate was tremendous and stupendous. It featured not only four scrumptious and varied American-made cheeses from Vermont, Georgia, California, and Oregon, but came with 5 different types of crackers, french bread, apples slices, grapes, walnuts, a gigantic fresh strawberry, and apricot jam. For $18 it was a generous by anyone's standards, a meal truly fit for a king.

After consuming my second whisky and everything on the plate, I was sated and ready for bed. The next night, a team dinner having fallen through, I repeated the experience, and it was equally delicious and generous in quality and portion. Stay not at the Hay-Adams, I recommend, but do stop by the Off The Record bar for a drink and this cheese plate.

I had meetings in Alexandria Old Town and took the Metro over and back twice from the Hay-Adams using the Farragut West stop as a point of entry and return, and King Street as my destination on the line. What a great service! I wish every city, including Raleigh, had something comparable.

After our meeting I joined my colleagues at their hotel, the Embassy Suites, for the traditional Hilton Embassy Suites Manager's Reception. My friends were paying over $300/night for their rooms there, and it was booked solid, which not even my Hilton Diamond privileges could overcome (which is why I was at the Hay-Adams). Given the breaktaking room rates, I was surprised to find the Embassy charging $1-2/drink at the Manager's Reception. In every Embassy this is a free service; but perhaps Hilton's policies have changed.

I drove home Wednesday evening, leaving Old Town in Alexandria after 7:30 PM to avoid the usually stopped rush-hour traffic headed south on I-95. Even at that hour, however, I encountered significant slowdowns before reaching Richmond (about 130 miles south of Washington). It was smooth sailing from there to Raleigh, and I pulled into my driveway at home before midnight.

Summarizing, the two jouneys to Washington were not stressful--rare luck! I wish every trip went so well, and once again I was glad to have used alternative means of travel to air. It was disappointing to have such a negative experience at the Hay-Adams, and I am sorry to have to strike it off my list of Washington hostelries, especially given my good experiences in the past.

In early October I fly to New Hampshire, followed by a journey on British Air's new OpenSkies airline from JFK to Amsterdam and back. In fact I will have an early report soon about my online experience with OpenSkies managing my reservations (a good experience).

After that I have another road trip planned to York, Pennsylvania, and in December I am taking my family to Los Angeles and then to Tahiti (actually, Moorea) to see what French Polynesia is all about.

Until next time, safe travels.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

To Start A 641 Mile Road Trip, First Fly 1,435 Miles

Yes, it might appear to be a bit twisted, and maybe even hypocritical, to fly halfway across the continent in order to thumb our noses at the airlines and their high fares by driving a rental car across large portions of the West instead of flying to a closer point to our ultimate destination. But that's what I did with my family over a good portion of late August on our annual trek to visit my in-laws in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness of south central Montana (26 miles due north of Yellowtone), and it made good sense when we planned it.

Actually, the airlines backed us into the plan. Usually we fly into Billings, Montana, our succesful strategy for some 15 years. Some years we have had to struggle to find reasonable fares for our family of four, but I've always prevailed.

Until 2008, anyway. We began searching for RDU/BIL fares on any carrier in January. Even then, long before the steep rises in summer gas prices, fares were about double what we paid last year at $700-800 per person round trip. I gulped hard at having to spend over $3,000 for the four of us to fly to Billings. I mean, Billings is not Beijing, for crying out loud! It just ain't worth it, I thought.

Then we noticed that Southwest, expanding again at RDU, had announced a new Raleigh-Denver nonstop and was offering introductory fares at just over $300 each, including taxes. Very tempting, but our calculations showed about 640 miles one way drom Denver International across Wyoming to Nye, Montana.

Thinking about it, though, we realized that in past years, once on the ground in Billings, we have always rented a car to drive the 100 miles to the breaktaking Stillwater River valley where my wife's parents have a modest cabin with a million dollar view. Except for additional gas costs and time (an extra day of driving each way), the cost of renting a car was practically the same in BIL or DEN.

The only question then was, Could we stand all that driving?

I always enjoy road trips, that is, as long as large and congested metro areas at rush hour can be avoided. When my wife and I plotted a potential course, we realized that it led us away from the traffic jams of Denver across the northern reaches of Colorado to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Then followed a winding path through central Wyoming to reach Montana, a trail we found intriguing. It would take us to and through strange, remote places in Wyoming far off the well-trod tourist lanes.

I mean, who's ever been to Casper, Wyoming? We all remember the name, because it's unique, but unless you work in the oil and gas business, or you were invited to go pheasant hunting with Dick Cheney, there's not a great chance you'd find yourself in downtown Casper.

As we pondered, Delta, Northwest, Frontier, and United all refused to budge on their fares to Billings. S0 in February we took the plunge and bought tickets on Southwest to Denver at the low intro fare levels. Mind you, that was still over $1,200 for the four of us, not chump change. Still, it was just a single flight from RDU to Denver to cover the 1,435 miles nonstop, a positive factor. Who likes to change planes any more? Who ever did, really?

I also made a Hertz reservation at DEN, making sure it was for unlimited miles. Though the direct mileage looked like 641, I figured on putting close to 2,000 miles on the rental car before all was said and done, and I didn't want to be paying by the mile.

The August day finally approached for our flight to Denver, and I began to have the remorses about choosing Southwest. Truth to tell, I've never really enjoyed flying on Southwest. Too many bad experiences with late flights and bad seats and, well, unusual seatmates.

I was glad, though, that I could go online 24 hours in advance and compete for an "A" group seat, and maybe even luck out with 4 low Group A numbers.

Didn't happen. I hit the "check-in" button right on the dot, but still only got A36, A37, A39, and A42. I have no idea why they weren't sequential, because my family was all on the same record.

I printed out our boarding passes, and the next morning we presented ourselves at the airport. (On the return flight two weeks later, I tried again dead on 24 hours in advance and once again scored almost identical numbers, but sequential: A36-A39.)

As flight time approached, we all lined up in the sequential order of our boarding passes, the "A" group first, behind each of the posts that Southwest has installed for boarding at every gate in every airport now. Their boarding process is unique, and a great improvement, in my opinion, over the former first-come, first-served line-up-behind-the-A-B-or-C-sign process.

The plane wasn't in, but I knew they'd turn it lickety-split, as that's their specialty, and so I didn't fret about it. Maybe I should have. The plane didn't arrive until after departure time. The quick turn happened smoothly, with clean-up and sweeps simultaneous to deplaning, but we were still a good 40 minutes late boarding.

I noticed two odd things about the new boarding process (odd to me, not being a Southwest regular): First, there was no one lined up in positions A1-A15, so group A people really started with A16. That, of course, put our numbers 15 positions closer to the front. (This also happened on the Denver-RDU flight--no one at all lined up in positions A1-A15.) I could not get any employee to explain the gaps.

Second, Southwest's "Business Select" (or whatever the name is for their new business fare) passengers were called to board first, but there weren't any! Maybe because it was a Saturday morning flight? Still, I would have expected at least one or two. On the return flight just two passengers presented themselves when called for early boarding (on a Friday afternoon).

The low boarding numbers paid off big time, as flights going and returning were completely full. We grabbed four seats in rows 3 and 4 going and coming, and our flights were tolerable, if long. Good thing we took homemade sandwiches, because four hours with a bag of peanuts and a Coke isn't enough for two growing kids.

There was plenty of overhead space for our carryon, too. We try never to check any bags, and I was relieved to find adequate storage on both airplanes. Summed up, Southwest did an OK job for what we paid, though both flights were late.

Hertz gave me a very tired, very dirty Hyundai full-sized van with 28,000 miles on the odometer, marginal tires, and (I discovered later) brakes on the verge of failure. I made a vain attempt to swap it on the spot, but they claimed no other vans on the entire lot that Saturday afternoon, so we took off. I figured I could trade it out in Billings, if necessary, but miraculously, it took us safely over 1,684 hard road miles to Montana and back to Colorado. The Hyundai drove and handled well even with a lot of weight up and over Beartooth Pass on the Wyoming/Montana border at almost 11,000 feet. We hated to part with it back at DIA two weeks later.

Our reservation that night was at a Motel 6 in Casper, Wyoming, a four hour drive from Denver, but there was enough daylight to make one or two short stops en route. The first respite was in Cheyenne, Wyoming, right over the line into Wyoming, and a relatively short 100 miles distance from DEN.

Cheyenne's main attraction (to me) is its railroads, past and present. The Union Pacific built through there in 1868 as it planned its route over Sherman Hill just west of the town. There the UP crests the Continental Divide and starts downgrade for Laramie. The UP steam shops in Cheyenne were legendary and employed several thousand highly skilled rail workers at their height in the 1940s.

Here, too, was the home of the largest steam locomotives ever built, UP's "Big Boy" engines. Each of the 25 locomotives weighed 1.25 million pounds and could pull the longest, heaviest trains on the road up and over Sherman Hill, reaching speeds of 70 MPH. One Big Boy is preserved in a trackside Cheyenne park. Even standing still, its powerful appearance is awe-inspiring.

We pressed on to Casper, and arrived as dusk was turning to dark. The Motel 6 we easily located thanks to my small Magellan GPS. The place looked dingy and slightly rundown, but I am not usually a Motel 6 patron, and I didn't quite know what to expect. Check-in was slow and tedious, requiring two forms of photo ID plus my credit card, which was charged in full in advance.

Our room was clean if not spacious, but the doorlock did not inspire me with confidence. It was loose, as was the door in its frame. Given the diverse crowd of guests I observed from our outside balcony, I opted to take everything of value with us in the van while we searched for a restaurant.

Turned out not too much is open in Casper on Saturday nights. We were adjacent to the downtown area, but found only one dining establishment still open at 8:00 PM. I didn't make note of its name, but like our motel it was a touch seedy and shopworn. The folks inside were extremely nice, which made up for the irritating yellow glare of too many incandescent bulbs.

The meal was forgettable, but did not sink to a level sufficient to inspire my ire, so, exhausted from the day's travel, I did not take detailed notes. We determined from the wait staff (all late middle aged women) that this was the only place for miles to serve breakfast, and thus decided grimly that we'd have another shot at its mediocre food the following morning.

That night brought back vivid memories of nights spent several decades back in motels with paper-thin walls. We could hear every word, cough, TV, and toilet flush from rooms adjacent, above, and below our own. It took hours for me to drift off into a fitful slumber.

Sunday morning my wife went for a brisk walk early and rushed back to report a small herd of pronghorn antelope in the parking lot. I'm used to closeup encounters with western wildlife in and around national parks like Yellowstone, but cheek-by-jowl to downtown Casper?

By the time we were showered, packed, and dressed the antelope had moved to the arid field next to the motel, and we watched them with wonder. Raleigh may not be New York, but the 1.3 million people who crowd into this part of the world have driven out most of the wildlife. Wouldn't it be great to live in a place where pronghorn antelope grazed in your yard?

That was our best experience in Casper. The town is apparently a hotbed for the oil and gas industry, and also for the coal industry, as Wyoming low-sulfur coalfields are not far away. Downtown Casper is replete with busy railyards and oil and gas facilities.

(Busy it may be, but consider this: On our return trip through Casper 12 days later, a Friday afternoon, we anticipated a slowdown due to rush hour--it was 5:30 PM. However, we got through town in 7 minutes on the Interstate. "Busy" is a relative term. Raleigh traffic, by comparison, is maddening at that time on a week day.)

Before shooting out of town, we stopped at the same tired restaurant for breakfast. Morning victuals must be their sweet spot, for we had delicious meals that energized us for hours of driving, and for not much money.

We could have headed north on the Interstate to Billings, the fastest driving route, but we opted to go west/northwest instead. We wanted to see Wyoming country that few tourists drive through. Hundreds of miles of it could be fairly described as uninteresting flat landscape, but, to me, the far-off vistas afforded by the mild undulation of the land and lack of forestation were spectacular! Distant mountains could be seen fifty to a hundred miles away.

Our route took us to Shoshoni, Wyoming, which looked on the map like a mere spot in the road where two roads crossed. It wasn't much more than that, either, but when we stopped for gas, bathroom breaks, snacks, and sodas, I was surprised to find a line eight people deep waiting to pay the cashier.

Even more surprising was the discovery that the young couple I tried to chat up in line didn't understand a word: They were Italian and on holiday. Shoshoni is a long distance away from popular Wyoming tourist destinations like Grand Teton or Yellowstone, yet there they were, well off the beaten path. Perhaps they were looking for something different, as were we. I'll never know, because my attempts at conversation shattered on the language barrier.

We turned north and made our way through the narrow and beautiful Wind River Canyon in the direction of Cody. Too much tourist fakery is ruining Cody for me, but I have fond memories of a night with my wife at the Irma Hotel there. The Irma was owned by Buffalo Bill when it opened about 1906, and except for its proprietor it hasn't changed too much since.

Cody touts itself as the eastern Wyoming gateway to Yellowstone, which is true as far it goes, though the park is still some 60 miles away. If you hadn't consulted a map, the Cody Chamber of Commerce would have you believe Yellowstone Park's entrance is just outside the city limits.

We did not linger in frenetic Cody, rather turned north and then west again on the gorgeous Chief Joseph Highway, a connector to U.S. Highway 212, the route over Beartooth Pass into Montana. This tortuous route rewarded us with some of the loveliest and most spectacular mountain views on the entire journey and made the extra mileage worthwhile.

After surmounting the Pass and crossing into Montana, the Hyundai's brakes complained loudly, and with acrid smoke, on the long series of switchbacks down to Red Lodge, Montana. I cursed Hertz for sticking me with such a Rent-A-Wreck vehicle, but I was too relaxed by then to want to do much about it, and I never did.

Red Lodge styles itself a cut above its roughhewn neighboring Montana towns, and indeed I found several bottles of Elderton shiraz, a very good Australian wine, which I bought as gifts for my wife's mom and dad. Even two years ago I couldn't find such spiffy treats in Red Lodge, or in Billings (though perhaps in cosmo Bozeman). Used to be I was lucky to locate a six-pack or two of Heineken, so poor were the pickings in local Red Lodge stores.

I have mixed feelings, conflicted feelings, about such "progress" and the implications: More snooty people (like me?) moving in to spoil the wilderness and make it un-wild, or at least less wild. So I was glad to leave Red Lodge in my dust and drive the last 90 minutes to the Stillwater River valley and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. There we spent an idyllic 11 days hiking, camping, trout fishing, making bread cooked on a wood stove, and sawing and splitting firewood. I slept well every night.

The trip back to Denver retraced some of our same steps, but we took the faster route through Billings, Montana and Sheridan, Wyoming (I-90). At Sheridan we stopped at a McDonald's so I could use their wifi to check in for our return flight on Southwest. I was shocked to discover that McDonald's wireless is not free; I paid $2.25 for a two-hour connection (the minimum time period). It was worth it to obtain group A seat assignments.

We drove hard all the way to the little town of Wheatland, Wyoming, about halfway between Casper and Cheyenne. There we overnighted at another Motel 6, but a much newer and nicer version than the one in Casper. This was actually a hotel, with inside rooms, reminiscent of early Hampton Inns. It came with free Internet (I'd had to pay in Casper), and the walls were far better sound insulators than those in the Casper property.

Our dinner experience in Wheatland, however, was dismal. Like Casper, Wheatland offers few choices for dining, and we ended up at the Dusty Boots Bar & Restaurant (also called "Vimbo's" for some unknown reason). The friendly but utterly incompetent wait staff recommended several items that proved to be inedible and distasteful.

After a truly awful salad (how do you screw up a tossed salad?) came my "BBQ Rib Dinner" entree. The so-called ribs tasted as if they had been dug up at one of the Wyoming archeological sites searching for dinosaur bones. They were dry and, well, dusty, true to the name of the restaurant.

Nearby male patrons were praising Bush's war in Iraq and sounded like archconservatives, which I associate stereotypically with Wyoming. I'd bet the Wyoming Democratic Party annual gathering could fit into a broom closet. In a state dependent upon oil and gas, and owning the bragging rights as the home of V.P. Cheney, neocons hold sway.

Listening to them prattling on about how righteous the war in Iraq was, I suggested some mischief to my wife. Why don't I ask those nice fellows at the next table, all decked out in western attire, if they can point us to Wyoming's famed Brokeback Mountain? I had planned to gush about how it was so great that Wyoming cowboys were finally out of the closest, after many decades of having relations with sheep, and maybe they would even start marrying each other soon. But my wife hurriedly paid the bill and ran me out before I could put my plan into action.

The following morning we exited Wyoming through Cheyenne and hit ugly morning traffic as we neared Denver. The stop-and-roll tedium reminded me how great Montana and Wyoming had been, with few people and cars and lots of wide-open space uncluttered with Denver-style subdivisions. Driving through the vast open ranges of Wyoming and Montana makes you realize how small we really are in the scheme of things like nothing else can. It's humbling.

Next week I have a surprisingly upbeat report on our Labor Day Amtrak trip to Washington, DC. We stayed at the incomparable Hay-Adams Hotel facing Lafayette Park and the White House.

Safe travels.