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.

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.


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