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, May 28, 2009

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime: North and South on I-95

It's no secret that the Interstate 95 corridor from Maine to Florida has become quite congested and is sometimes impassable. As part of my yearlong experiment to avoid air travel whenever possible, I made two recent trips of just over 320 miles each way along significant portions of I-95, with varying results.

Summing up, I found that northbound, once past Richmond, you're likely to be creeping, and trying to avoid I-95 from Richmond north does not much improve one's travel experience; and southbound, despite some difficult miles in certain places once clear of Richmond, it's not as bad as its reputation. Richmond seems to be the dividing line between horrible traffic and intermittent but tolerable congestion.

Twice a year I try to attend the "York Train Show," shorthand for the biggest model railroad show in the nation held in April and October by the Train Collectors Association (TCA) at the York Fairgrounds in Pennsylvania. Raleigh is just close enough that it's stupidly expensive to fly to BWI and rent a car, but just far enough that driving up there presents the horrendous challenge of getting around or through Washington, D.C.

Maybe the train? Nope. You can't get there via Amtrak, so flanged wheels on steel rails are a non-starter.

The District of Columbia and surrounding areas of northern Virginia and Maryland have grown in a gargantuan metroplex gobbling up the lovely rolling, formerly horse-country countryside faster than L.A. did in the fifties and sixties. Traffic anywhere there is slow pretty much all the time. Trying to circumnagivate the city and its burbs via I-95 has become the gorilla of all gorillas in rubber-tired surface travel on asphalt and concrete.

So, having selected my automobile as the sole conveyor of body and soul to York, I set off with a friend on a weekday morning at 10:00 AM.

When I stayed on I-95 last October going to York, I became hopelessly snarled in stop-and-go traffic most of the way north of Richmond. Therefore, to avoid the worst of Washington, I planned to exit I-95 at Fredericksburg and take U.S. Highway 17 to the intersection of U.S. Highway 15 at Opal, and thence north through Virginia and a piece of Maryland to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where we could drive east about 30 miles on venerable U.S. 30 (the Lincoln Highway) to York. It should have taken us about six hours going this route to get to York.

Instead, we arrived there after 6:00 PM, some eight and a half hours after leaving home in Raleigh, proving once again that there's no good way to avoid DC's urban sprawl. We didn't even make any long stopovers. Our delicious barbecue lunch at a roadside dive in Opal, Virginia didn't take more than a half hour.

The extra two hours was partly due to the extra mileage caused by going west of Washington, but mostly due to the very slow traffic north of Opal, Virginia and south of the Pennsylvania state line. There's no evidence of a recession out there! Road construction, with more traffic lights and extra lanes, is underway at a fervent pace; likewise the mushrooming of yet more look-alike condo and mini-mansion development projects within view of the highway.

In short, it was a mistake to take that route. My experiment failed. I've tried every which way to drive around and through the Washington-Baltimore metro area with no success at avoiding creeping and often stopped traffic.

I've been told that the only sure way to avoid it is to go very far west. Going east doesn't work because you run out of geography and hit the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the equally horrible traffic in and around Norfolk. Going west, however, means many more miles and also creates its own unique traffic issues, such as getting through Charlottesville, Virginia. There the town fathers long ago decreed limitations on road-building which causes chronic tie-ups trying to pass it by. The only advantage in going way west is a prettier and less stressful journey.

Returning home three days later, a Friday, we opted to take the same route, hoping that our morning and midday travel times would be improved over those of the mid- and late afternoon northbound trip. No such luck. The traffic didn't adhere to rush hour patterns and was slow throughout the entire route back to Fredericksburg, where we rejoined I-95 South. In some places on highways 15 and 17 we were stopped for 15-30 minutes for no apparent reasons. I-95 south was also slow until we reached Richmond.

This experience made me very glad that I don't live in that area, and it does not make me relish returning again any time soon. Driving anywhere in the greater I-95 corridor between Richmond and Boston has become a soul-wearying experience to be avoided whenever possible.

Going south to Savannah from Raleigh some three weeks later for a Memorial Day weekend visit with the family to the old city was, by contrast, a breeze. I was worried that the holiday traffic might slow us down on that Friday afternoon, but I was happily wrong.

We departed Raleigh just before 1:00 PM on I-40 east and joined I-95 south about 40 minutes later. I-95 was thereafter our route for about 260 miles through North Carolina and most of South Carolina. Close to the Georgia border, we took exit 5 to travel the final 10 miles on scenic U.S. Highway 17 to the Savannah River crossing into downtown Savannah. We had budgeted a bit over six hours for the trip counting a gas/rest stop, but we arrived in just five and half hours.

Most of the drive was pleasant with traffic keeping near or just beyond the speed limits. As usual, the section through Lumberton and Fayetteville in North Carolina was congested, but speeds were maintained. Extra vigilence was required in heavy traffic to keep safe distances through those areas.

After a great weekend walking the 21 squares of that fine southern city, her many magnificent live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, we headed home on Memorial Day Monday. I once again over-eastimated the traffic congestion, and the return trip was as speedy and relaxing as the southward one had been.

No question which direction I'd rather go driving up or down I-95: south! However, it begs the question of how practical it is to drive. Even these two trips of about 320 miles each would take too long for most business schedules. Ditto for the train. If automobile or train travel options require a time premium of more than, say, an hour each way, they won't replace air for most of us. Air, of course, costs much more, especially when factoring in a rental car once on the ground, but the time saved flying overcomes the savings for me and my clients.

And, frankly, even if air and car were about the same in time, going to D.C. I'd prefer to fly to avoid the traffic throughout the area. I can navigate the L.A. basin by car better than I can the environs of our nation's capital, and that's a sad fact.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Another Near-Perfect Trip: Maybe the Recession Has a Silver Lining

Easter weekend in early April saw me and my family flying off for the Twin Cities, and thence the three hour drive up to Moorhead, Minesota to visit family. Of course I tried to book the great nonstop flights on Northwest between Raleigh and MSP, but Northwest (now Delta) had them priced about $80 per person higher than connecting flights on other airlines, and that premium adds up when four people are involved. I chose to save the $320 and to hope for the best by booking with American Airlines through O'Hare.

The two flights to Minneapolis/St. Paul went off without a hitch despite being chock-a-block full, and, to me, AA's concourses at ORD looked as crowded as ever. With full planes and wall-to-wall people making their way from one flight to another, I wondered why the operation seemed to be functioning so well. When I made informal inquiries with agents and flight attendants, they claimed that though flights were indeed full, the elimination of many ORD flights due to the recession's downturn in business had alleviated the congestion at Chicago, causing the air system to work well for the first time in years.

No emperical data to back that up, but it made sense. Whatever the cause--even if just plain luck--I was grateful to experience a trip by air that adhered to the published schedule. In fact both flights were early!

Another observation was that we flew on real airplanes on all four segments, not RJs. I hear many RJs have been grounded alongside larger aircraft--good news. Maybe RJs will become a bad memory that we can all joke about with our grandchildren one day: "Oh yes, it was HORRIBLE what we had to endure! The tiny tin cans they made us fly in often didn't even have flushing toilets! And we had to walk a mile uphill both ways on the tarmac to get on and off the dang things! In the SNOW! At 32 below zero! All the while dragging our luggage out to little carts by the planes!"

Once we arrived at MSP, we had to make the milelong trek to the cable-train (a train pulled by cables) which shuttled us even farther away to the rental car facility. There we navigated the confusing corridors to Hertz to pick up our outrageously expensive van (we needed it to haul ourselves and other family members from the Twin Cities up to Moorhead).

It was a brand new Toyota Sienna, and we piled into it--and then right back out of it. It reeked of smoke, and not just a plain tobacco odor (bad enough). The previous renter had defiled the vehicle with a plentitude of highly flavored pipe tobacco which had pervaded every nook and cranny, leaving a strong, sickening smell that persisted as if the guilty party had just that moment exited the van.

Twenty minutes later we were on our way in a different van, leaving me to wonder why Hertz or any car rental company could possibly have cleared the original vehicle for the ready line. Smoky cars have come my way several times in the last few years, more so than ever in well over 30 years of renting.

Our long drive up to Moorhead was uneventful, save the Dairy Queen stop we made to satisfy the kids. I never had a "Blizzard" before that afternoon, and I am sorry I ordered one. They could be addictive, and I am grateful there are no known DQ stores close to our home.

The stop, about 110 miles northwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul, reminded me once again how darn NICE Minnesotans are! Every employee at DQ (a wide range of ages) and every customer could have been a stock character out of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone, polite to a fault and ready to take you into their family. Maybe it's not too surprising that Keillor took the name of his radio show from a Moorhead landmark, Prairie Home Cemetary, which is just a few blocks from my wife's parents's home.

On arrival at Moorhead, we found lots of civil engineering work afoot along the street where my wife grew up. An earthen dam over five feet high was almost complete, walling off the neighbors on the west side of the street from those on the east side. The notorious Red River of the North was threatening to reprise its record flooding of the previous two weeks cause by massive winter snows, and the city of Moorhead was ensuring that most neighborhoods would be protected.

The picture at the top of this post is of that well-made, temporary levee along Elm Street in Moorhead.

Plenty of snow remained in evidence around town, too, more than enough for my son and his granddad to make a very respectable igloo in the back yard large enough to crawl in and sit up (igloo video can be seen at While overnight temps dipped well below freezing in Moorhead during our visit, back in North Carolina dogwoods and azaleas were in their full glory. I love the people of Minnesota, but I wouldn't trade our North Carolina weather for Minnesota's.

Our long weekend with the family allowed sufficient time for a road trip, so one morning we all piled into the van to see Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi and neaby Bemidji, home of Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox. Lake Itasca was gorgeous and relaxing, a picture postcard of a pristine, ice-covered lake slowly releasing its frigid, crystal clear meltwater across an outlet of stones into the shallow narrow creek that gradually, downstream, becomes the Mighty Mississip!

While Lake Itasca is the quintessential North Woods state park, Bemidji is a quaint little burg built along the edge of a long lake through which the Mississippi River flows, in one end and out the other. It looked like it had seen better days to me, but don't tell that to the locals, all of whom seemed energetive and outgoing and right darned proud of the place! Big statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe sit by the lake near the center of town.

Going home from Moorhead proved as easy a journey as it had been going up. even on Easter Sunday. I was amazed that flights were full, yet schedules were kept. Here I am not flying nearly as much these days as I spend more time at home with my family, and for the first time in many years, flying seems to be more civilized! As it appears that I may be back in the full grind by fall, I can only hope this experience proves to be the norm and not an anomaly.

Next week I report on another road trip which takes me all over the greater Washington, D.C. metroplex. Some of the world's worst traffic? Who said that?