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, 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.


Blogger hulananni said...

Spending time with your son. Seeing a steam train. Sure, it was worth it and you'd (I'd) do it again given the chance. Might not miss the rain if it stayed away...but a red Mustang! Boys and their toys :>)

7/31/2009 2:53 PM  
Blogger Che Grovera said...

What a miserable day June 19th was at O'Hare! I was traveling home to Central Illinois from Southern California, and my time in-seat from SNA to ORD was 8-1/2 hours (for what is ordinarily a 3-1/2 hour flight) -- our flight was diverted to MSP by the hailstorm that drenched you. While we were on the ground (on the taxiway, natch) in Minneapolis my BlackBerry showed my connecting flight as scheduled but delayed, which lulled me into not making hotel or car reservations while I had the chance. Oops. Of course, my flight showed as cancelled on the board when I finally trudged into the terminal at O'Hare -- and my BlackBerry's battery was too low to make calls! I used a payphone to confirm what I already knew -- all the one-way rental cars were long gone. I hustled over to the Hilton and saw the lobby hordes of which you spoke (and confirmed what I already knew -- no room at the inn).

Eight calls from the board at the O'Hare Shuttle Center netted me a room at a local Comfort Inn for $130. And the crowning glory was that after five hours of sleep and a return slog to O'Hare, my morning flight was delayed due to crew issues -- the really aggravating part was that our crew showed up ontime but was yanked for another flight, leaving our lightly loaded plane to sit for another hour...nothing but love for American Eagle.

So I'd say you got off easy, Will! Glad to hear that the main point of your trip was realized without any further problems.

8/02/2009 11:43 AM  

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