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.

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.


Blogger ISI said...

Southwest holds the boarding passes A1 to A30 for the Business Select passengers. That is why when you got passes right at the 24hour period you were in the A31+ range. Since others were also getting passes at the same windows, as each single boarding pass was assigned you got the next number avaialble. This took a couple seconds for each one - thus the non-consecutive numbers you received.

Hope this helps. Jim Manley

9/06/2008 8:24 PM  
Blogger Portland via Japan said...

Great trip report with insightful comments, especially about Wyoming politics ans changes in Montana. I did a similar thing one trip; flew into SLC and mase the longdrive to Calgary visiting Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier Nat'l Parks along the way. I always enjoy your column!

9/06/2008 10:15 PM  
Blogger Joshua Katt said...

Actually SW holds 1-15 for Business Select, whether they are sold or (usually) not. That is why you had the gap. Then 16 and higher automatically goes to any A listers (their equivalent of elite status for 32 one ways in a rolling year). If you are stuck paying full fare anyway (under 7 days) and are facing a full flight, Business Select is well worth the extra $20. It is a great airline when you know all their quirky rules and use them to your advantage.

Try National Rent A Car. Once you get used to picking out almost any car on the lot yourself, you won't go back.

I love your ability to strike up conversations with strangers and service providers and get so much out of them in a short period of time.

10/06/2008 3:30 PM  
Blogger Joshua Katt said...

Actually SW holds 1-15 for Business Select, whether they are sold or (usually) not. That is why you had the gap. Then 16 and higher automatically goes to any A listers (their equivalent of elite status for 32 one ways in a rolling year). If you are stuck paying full fare anyway (under 7 days) and are facing a full flight, Business Select is well worth the extra $20. It is a great airline when you know all their quirky rules and use them to your advantage.

Try National Rent A Car. Once you get used to picking out almost any car on the lot yourself, you won't go back.

I love your ability to strike up conversations with strangers and service providers and get so much out of them in a short period of time.

10/06/2008 3:30 PM  

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