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.

My Photo
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, July 09, 2009

Nickel Plate Road 765 in the Mustang's rear view mirror, 7/20/09

Nickel Plate Road 765 drive rods, 7/20/09
Nickel Plate Road 765 photo run-by as we view from the Mustang, 7/20/09
Big Steam Locomotives Are Hard To Find! (And How Can So Many Things Happen On a Weekend Trip Trying to See One?)

Part 3 of 3

Continuing the story of our trip (my son and I) to North Judson, Indiana, via Chicago, please read Parts 1 and 2 below to get the context. We had finally reached the Hilton O'Hare Hotel after picking up our fire engine red Mustang convertible in Part 2. And then the fun began:

By the time I pulled into the unenclosed Hilton O'Hare entrance, the pouring rain had turned to large hail, and no Hilton doorman was to be found. Furious to be skunked the only time I needed to have my car valet-parked at a Hilton, I grabbed our bags and ran inside, leaving my son to guard the car. It was just a few feet from car to front door, but I was drenched and looked like a drowned rat by the time I reached the interior.

There a doorman tried to take my bags, looking at me cursiously as if I might be a vagrant. I retorted: "NO! Not my BAGS! Please get my CAR! Where were you, and where were your umbrellas when I needed you?"
There was no reasonable explanation offered for why no one was looking for guests arriving by car, so I settled for his somewhat reluctant movement to take my car keys and an umbrella and to escort my son into the hotel and then park the car. "You know, sir," he said, as if I thought parking might be complimentary, "Valet parking here is $45 per night, plus tax."

I replied that he should please bring my receipt to the check-in desk, and I waited for him to collect my son from the Mustang. The rain and large ice pellets of hail continued to fall unabated, and my son gleefully brought in some samples of the largest hailstones.

At the front desk I was offered free full breakfasts and a free movie because they could not accommodate us on an HHonors floor. I didn't much care about a room on a lower floor, and I said that we'd be leaving both Saturday and Sunday mornings too early to enjoy the breakfast coupons. Couldn't we exchange the full breakfast coupons for free Internet instead? "Oh, NO, sir!" said the clerk reflexively and with a hint of incredulity, as if I had asked for a free upgrade to the Presidential Suite, and I could see that he wished he had put it differently. But he offered no alternative, and I took the coupons, which I noticed were not dated and therefore could be used for a later stay at the property.

Sure enough the room was on the fourth floor and thus overlooked the parking garage, but my son didn't mind. He was just excited to be there and immediately wanted to redeem the free movie coupon. I unpacked and checked out the bathroom, where I noticed we'd been left a hand soap for the basin but no bath soap for the tub and shower. I phoned housekeeping asked about getting more soap. To my astonishment I was assured that one bar of hand soap was all the Hilton O'Hare now provided to guests!

I guess such a ridiculous statement finally tipped my mood. After the fiasco with the car (and still dripping wet from the experience), the coupons I couldn't use, and the soap I could not get, I phoned again and asked for a manager. Instead, I reached a Hilton O'Hare staff person named Vanessa, whose title was never clearly explained.

As it turned out, I was lucky to have been connected to Vanessa. She was very polite, well-trained, and compentent. I asked her first why such a fine hotel had instituted a third world policy of putting only one bar of hand soap in the room to be shared, presumably, between the basin and the bath. She vehemently contradicted the housekeeping person I'd spoken to and promised to send up more soap at once.

Vanessa then asked whether I was happy and pleased with my stay at the Hilton O'Hare so far. No, I said, not happy. And I told her that I'd stayed many times at that property and had never had so many things go wrong so quickly, explaining the Mustang parking snafu, the breakfast coupons I could not use, the HHonors room I didn't get, the upgraded room I didn't receive, and the single bar of soap.

Vanessa was able to remedy all my problems. She comped my Internet usage for the entire stay. Within moments I had an armful of soap. Five minutes later Admir Vujic, the doorman who had left me to park my own car in the rain, came to our room with a complimentary VIP parking pass for the Mustang. Admir profusely and humbly apologized, and thanked me for letting Vanessa know how unhappy I was. I actually began to feel bad for him and the hotel, so promptly and completely did Vanessa set in motion corrective actions. Altogether, she saved me over $90 in hotel parking and Internet access charges, but her customer service dedication meant as much to me as the cost avoidance. The Hilton is lucky to have her.

Though I had no need to speak to a manager after Vanessa's intercessions on my behalf, no manager ever returned my message, either. And though I have nothing but praise for Vanessa, the truth is we should never have been introduced. If the hotel had delivered seamless service, Vanessa's job would be unnecessary.

My son and I redeemed our bad start on the morning by taking the CTA into downtown Chicago ($2.25 per person each way) and back. I took him to the Museum of Science and Industry, the observation deck on the 99th floor of Sears Tower, Amtrak Union Station, and we walked around to give him a flavor of the city. Our return ride to O'Hare on the train was speedy while we watched car traffic in both directions stalled for miles.

When we reached the Hilton O'Hare about 7:00 PM, the day's bad weather had resulted in hundreds of cancellations, and the stranded zombie passengers had invaded the hotel to find food, drink, and overnight accommodations. They found plenty of sustenance and libation, but no rooms, so they naturally hung around eating and drinking. And overwhelmed the food and beverage staffs. My son and I couldn't even get room service, and I settled for some cereal boxes from the lobby deli for him.

The rest of the weekend went much better. Saturday dawned sunny and clear, and we cruised over to Indiana, some 80 miles, with the ragtop down, jubilant in the late June morning. I didn't even have to stop at the interminable toll plazas because the Hertz car came equipped with an I-Pass/EZ-Pass/I-Zoom device attached to the windshield (which I have yet to be billed for).

After a wonderful day seeing the steam locomotive up close and personal (see photos at top of this post), we headed back to Chicago in the late afternoon. All was well until we reached the east side of downtown, and there traffic just stopped. I guess everybody was out to enjoy a drive on the beautiful day, but it was awful. I used my GPS to take alternate routes through city streets. Yes, it was slow going, but at least we kept moving. I rejoined the freeway back to O'Hare at the last possible minute, but still the delay was more than two hours. I was very happy to pull into the Hertz lot to return the Mustang, even though we had enjoyed having such a great car. (I highly recommend renting one just for fun some time!)

Sunday morning's flight back to Raleigh again saw us both once again upgraded to first class at the newly remodeled but less roomy AA Admirals Club between the "H" and "K" concourses. However, the 7:30 AM departure did NOT serve breakfast in first class, not even a cookie. I asked the gate agents and the flight attendants about it, and they, too, couldn't understand it. Cutbacks, they thought. AA is cutting out most F class domestic meals, one told me, and this was likely part of the trend. I reflected that the dollars I'd spent to buy the upgrade credits didn't merit this segment, but it was too late to change it. Our flight arrived early in Raleigh.

In retrospect it seems to me that there was too much planning required, too much cost (over $1,000 all in for the two of us), and too much hassle en route for a weekend venture just to ride behind a live steam locomotive. No trip is simple these days, and I have to ask for future reference if I'd do it again. My answer is, yes, if my son really wanted to, as he did this time. The memories of our time together are more precious than the cost and the trouble.

Hertz red Mustang convertible with my son at the wheel in Indiana, 6/20/09

Big Steam Locomotives Are Hard To Find! (And How Can So Many Things Happen On a Weekend Trip Trying to See One?)

Part 2 of 3

Continuing the story of our trip (my son and I) to North Judson, Indiana, via Chicago, please read Part 1 below to get the context. We were just about to take off from Raleigh/Durham Airport for our nonstop flight on American Airlines in First Class to Chicago O'Hare:

Service en route was excellent, with a very filling breakfast served--not bad for an 8:35 AM departure, I thought. The flight was about 5 minutes late by the time we hit the O'Hare tarmac, and storm clouds threatened off to the north and west. By the time we had reached the "H" concourse, lightning had begun to strike. Literally adjacent to the gate, our flight was ordered to halt as ground staff took safe cover.

And there we sat for more than two hours as an incessant series of fierce thunderstorms flew over the field. My son, and most people on the plane, were tortured by our close proximity to freedom. We idled on the pad within a few feet of the jetway, helpless to do anything, and stewed in our seats. I was very glad we had both eaten a hearty breakfast and had plenty of fluids. Nothing was served to anyone during the long period of entrapment.

Finally off the aircraft, my son and I almost ran to the exit and then waited 15 minutes for a Hertz bus. Meanwhile, I counted five Avis buses and three National/Alamo buses go by, and even a couple of Budget buses. By the time the long yellow Hertz bus pulled up, we had enough customers waiting for it to fill it completely.

At the Hertz canopy I looked for my name on the board and ran for our car in the pouring rain as yet another storm dropped a motherload of rain. As I opend the door, my heart sank: the stale smell of smoke permeated the interior.

Luggage and my son in tow, I made a beeline for the Hertz Number One Club Gold counter where I waited patiently for another ten minutes. The very kind and competent agent apologized profusely for the smoky vehicle and asked if I preferred anything.

As I pondered her question, I heard my son--remember, age ten--say loudly, "A RED MUSTANG CONVERTIBLE, PLEASE!" Somewhat startled, the Hertz agent and I both looked down at him. "Please, Dad?" he pleaded.

"Do you HAVE a Mustang convertible, and how much extra would it cost?" I asked the agent.

"Yeah, they have one, and it's RED, Dad!" my son exclaimed. "I saw it right down there." He pointed to a line of cars nearby.

The agent raised her eyebrows, smiled, checked her computer, and announced that, yes, it was indeed there and available because the renter had not picked it up (no doubt delayed as we were due to the rain). It would cost an extra $10/day, a deal she gave us because of my inconvenience with the smoky car.

Naturally, I took it, and within minutes we were exiting the Hertz lot in a fiery red Mustang convertible in a deluge of rain that Noah could have identified with.

It was a short drive back to the center of O'Hare to the Hilton O'Hare Hotel where I'd made reservations. My plan was simple: Park the car at the hotel Friday morning and leave it until Saturday morning; take the Blue Line CTA train to the Loop and show my son a bit of downtown Chicago that afternoon; return again on the CTA train to O'Hare; spend the night at the Hilton; leave very early Saturday morning in our red Mustang convertible for a pleasant drive to northwestern Indiana (North Judson); ride behind the steam locomotive for a few hours; drive back to Chicago late Saturday afternoon; return the car to Hertz; take the Hertz shuttle back to the airport; walk across to the Hilton for our second night; and, finally, walk back to American Airlines Sunday morning for our return flight to Raleigh.

Basically we followed the plan, and it worked. With a few flaws mainly at the Hilton O'Hare. But that's a story I'll save for next week's post. Look for it in Part 3 of this steam locomotive saga!

Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 Berkshire 765 at North Judson, Indiana, 6/20/09

Big Steam Locomotives Are Hard To Find! (And How Can So Many Things Happen On a Weekend Trip Trying to See One?)

Part 1 of 3

For those who like big American steam locomotives like the ones that powered trains in the United States until the late 1950s, there are few opportunities these days to see one operate. In fact there are only about six large steam engines running in 2009: two 2-8-4 Berkshire locomotives (Nickel Plate Road 765 and Pere Marquette 1225, which was the model used in the movie "Polar Express"): three 4-8-4 Northern locos (Union Pacific 844, Southern Pacific 4449, and Milwaukee Road 261); and one 4-6-6-4 Challenger (Union Pacific 3985).

There are a number of smaller steam engines kept operating by tourist railroads around the nation, and you can probably name some of them if you think for a moment, but the massive steam power that once ran on the main lines of our country's biggest railroads have dwindled to just those six.

The Union Pacific is the only major railroad that maintains a corporate Steam Program. The program is based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and they keep up two beautiful examples of steam's greatest days, the UP 3985 4-6-6-4 Challenger and the UP 844 FEF-3 4-8-4. Both engines are used across the UP system in the west in public relations runs aimed at keeping the railway in the public eye.

The other four locomotives are kept up by various nonprofit groups, like the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society ( operates the Nickel Plate Road 765 pictured above. It costs millions of dollars to rebuild and operate a steam engine, and the money comes from running short steam excursion trains for the public, usually on weekends, during good weather months.

My ten year old son and I purchased tickets on one such trip, a ten-mile ride behind the 765 between North Judson and La Crosse, Indiana on a recent Saturday. I didn't want to drive 800 miles one way to Indiana from Raleigh, so I found reasonably cheap seats on nonstops American Airlines flights to and from O'Hare, and I booked a good weekend rate room at the Hilton O'Hare to use as our base. The last piece of the logistics puzzle was a Hertz car to transport us the 80 miles each way between O'Hare and North Judson, Indiana.

Thus in order to satisfy our yen to enjoy a two-hour ride behind a steam locomotive, we had to plan a three day trip (Friday morning through Sunday afternoon) that involved two trips to the Raleigh/Durham airport for my wife, two airplane rides, two nights in a hotel, and a car rental. So many variable always increases the odds that something will go wrong, and of course we hit a few snags.

Luckily our flight RDU/ORD was on time, and even luckier, upgrades came through for both me and my son. I used to be an Executive Platinum flyer with AA but have since dropped to a lowly Gold, so I never expect an upgrade any more. The fact that I could get not one but two upgrades on a Friday morning flight to Chicago brings home the severity of this recession.

I've been staying away from airports as much as possible for the past few months, so I was unhappily surprised to find that the Obama administration's new TSA gurus have re-instituted random gate checks. I don't know any frequent flyer who was sorry to see those discontinued during the Bush years, nor anyone who thinks they really make a difference in tightening security. Instead, the poor schmucks who are pulled out of line on the jetway for patdowns and carryon searches watch helplessly as other passengers board ahead of them and take up all the overhead luggage space.

It became my practice in the years right after 9/11 when random gate checks were the norm to tarry when my section was called for boarding and only jump in the line when TSA had snagged a couple of poor fools to harrass. Thus engaged, TSA ignored me as I strolled by, and I never lost the narrow window of early boarding when sufficient overhead bin space is still available. Certainly if I, a good citizen, could routinely avoid being searched, a person intent on wrongdoing would have little trouble, either. So why do it?

That was the question I posed to the TSA employees waiting with rubber gloves at our gate before the flight was called. None had an answer, and because they never, or rarely, fly themselves, they could not envision the uninended consequences of their random searches for the frequent traveler. Having told them how I planned to avoid being searched, the TSA person in charge merely smiled and nodded, saying, "Yep, you don't want to be the first person on board!"

So I wasn't. And TSA pulled the first two people. My son and I boarded thereafter with no interference from TSA whatsoever, though had I been they, I might have suspected me for employing the very tactic I described to them in advance.

Next week I will continue this story with Part 2, which takes us as far as a stormy morning at O'Hare and seeking a rare fire engine red Mustang convertible from Hertz.