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, April 28, 2011

A further interlude to China and Vietnam:  Exploring the Colorado Plateau


Easter week coincided with our kids’ week of spring break, so my wife and I took them for a whirlwind driving tour (1845 miles on our Hertz car) of the Colorado Plateau: Monument Valley (between Kayenta, Arizona and Mexican Hat, Utah), the San Juan River country (Mexican Hat, Utah), Canyon de Chelley (near Chinle, Arizona), Shiprock (New Mexico), Mesa Verde (near Cortez, Colorado), Arches National Park (close to Moab, Utah), Zion National Park (Utah), Las Vegas (an abomination to God), and two nights at the Grand Canyon.  It was a great adventure!
 

We had been to most of those places before, and yet, somehow, this journey was very special.  I admit to a passion for Native American culture in the Great American West.  In particular I've always been fascinated with what became of the predecessor peoples to the Navajo, Utes, and Hopi of the Colorado Plateau around Four Corners known as the Anasazi, or Pueblo People for the cliff houses that are the hallmarks of their culture.  This trip covered the heart of Anasazi territory.

1845 miles of driving is a lot for seven days on the road, an average of 264 miles per day.  To access these areas, however, requires the frugal flyer to book into Phoenix or Las Vegas, the only two major airports with sufficient competition to guarantee reasonable fares. 

Knowing it would be preferable to make a big loop beginning and ending in Las Vegas, I tried airfares to LAS first with no luck.  In the end PHX fares were about $90 cheaper per ticket (times 5 people, including my wife and me, our two kids, and our Italian exchange student).

Our flights on American Airlines RDU/ORD/PHX were executed on time and with superb service (in coach), and we were on the sidewalk waiting to board the Rental Car Center shuttle bus within 8 minutes of landing (thanks to not checking our luggage).

The generic shuttle bus eventually deposited us at the giant offsite Rental Car Center where we found our way to the Hertz Number One Gold area.  But my name was not on the electronic board, forcing me to join a slow-moving line inside the Gold office behind people who also had no assigned vehicle.

Time seems to stand still at airline check-in counters, in rental car offices, and in hotel lobbies when things go wrong, and this very hot noontime wait was no exception.  When finally my turn came, Hertz PHX Gold Manager Chris Stevens apologized profusely and assumed complete blame, saying Hertz didn't have sufficient staff to turn the incoming cars back to customers waiting like me. 

Chris claimed our car would be ready in another 20 minutes (I'd been waiting a half hour already), and when it wasn't, he provided a free tank of gas as compensation.  He also made sure we got a brand new (5400 miles on the odometer) 2011 Toyota Sienna van (I'd reserved a van for our big group) with all the bells and whistles, including the built-in Hertz NeverLost GPS system.

We therefore departed Phoenix over an hour later than planned, but at least with a nice car fitted out with every doodad and a free tank of petrol.  I burned rubber at just above the legal 75 MPH up the Interstate to Flagstaff and then continued north on to Kayenta which is the gateway town in the vast Navajo Reservation to Monument Valley. 

I pulled into the Hampton Inn-Kayenta at about 5:00 PM local time.  It proved to be comfortable, clean, modern, and up to Hilton Hampton Inn standards, all for a bit over $100/night, which, as always with Hamptons, included breakfast.  Not bad for 5 people (one slept on the floor in a sleeping bag we brought with us).

The next morning we left early and enjoyed a leisurely and uncrowded drive through the breath-taking beauty of Monument Valley.  Halfway through, we came across a Navajo man and his son renting horses for rides through the valley (the Navajo operate Monument Valley).

Thinking this could be a great experience and memory, I inquired with the elder about his prices. 

"$80 for a half hour," he told me.  

"I'm sorry, but that's more than I can afford," I said, shrugging.  "I have five people."  I turned back to the car.

"Wait," he said. "How much do you have?"

I pulled out a hundred dollar bill.

"OK, a half hour for all five," he smiled. 

I smiled, too.  $20 per person sounded a lot better than $80 each.

We helped him and his son saddle up our steeds, and off we went.  The kids will never forget it!  May be the best hundred bucks I ever spent.



Leaving Monument Valley we hightailed north into Utah to Mexican Hat and the beautiful San Juan River country of that wild region.  From there we drove east and south back into Arizona to reach Canyon de Chelley via another Navajo town, Chinle.

There we stopped for lunch at a local place, and I asked two Navajo policemen for directions to Shiprock in New Mexico, not far as the crow flies, but the map was unclear as to the route.  I was surprised that the two local tribal lawmen were not certain whether the road would take us directly to New Mexico without doubling back a long way.  Guess I figured that police officers anywhere, and especially Native American gendarmes, would have an intimate knowledge of every highway and byway within their jurisdiction.

After skirting the north side of Canyon de Chelley and enjoying short hikes to the rim at two overlooks, we risked taking the highway that looked direct, and it paid off.  The road, BIA 13 on the Arizona and New Mexico maps, connects over a gorgeous stretch of mountains still in snow to Shiprock, saving us at least an hour of driving.

Overnight was spent at a Best Western in Cortez, Colorado just north of Shiprock, where I'd booked a suite such as one might find at an Embassy Suites property.  Once again we were pleased with the accommodation:  It was spacious, comfortable, clean, with the same breakfast as the Hamptons serve, for about $120.

Mesa Verde National Park, one of the stunning national treasures of the Park Service, sits on a high mesa about 20 miles east of Cortez.  It is the only National Park which honors a civilization, the Anasazi culture.  The pueblo cliff dwellings there are among the many Anasazi ruins to be found on the Colorado Plateau, including those at Canyon de Chelley and the spectacular and eerie abandoned Anasazi city called Chaco Culture in New Mexico (east and south of Mesa Verde).

We made it a point to leave the hotel early enough to get to the Mesa Verde Information Center when they opened at 8:00 AM.  On the way I purchased a Senior Pass for $10 at the Mesa Verde gate which enables me to enter any U.S. National Park for the rest of my life for free, along with everyone accompanying me in the vehicle.  Needless to say, that saved us quite a bit of money on this trip, and it will on future trips (assuming I don't die first).

The nice ladies at the Information Center sold us tickets ($3 each) for the 9:00 AM Ranger-led tour of Mesa Verde's primo site called Cliff Palace.  The old saying about the early bird getting the worm proved true, as we enjoyed a fascinating experience with only one other family on the 9:00 AM tour.  Without going into detail, if you have any interest in the history and culture of the mysterious Anasazi people, this is highly recommended.



It had snowed overnight at Mesa Verde's high elevation (over 8,000 feet).  Our drives in and out were gorgeous.

From there we turned north towards Moab, Utah, about a 3 hour journey, en route to Arches National Park.  Traffic was moderate, and we stopped in Monticello, Utah for lunch at a local restaurant. 

Arriving Moab in the early afternoon, I didn't think we'd be able to check in yet to the Hampton Inn.  But they had our room ready, and we dropped our bags, and we rushed back to the car for the short drive to Arches north of town.

Arches National Park is indescribably beautiful.  We opted for a hike to "Delicate Arch" (which appears on the Utah license plate), a mile and a half distant from the parking lot, and mostly vertical.  Once we reached the arch itself, the vistas were magical, and we didn't want to leave. 



I knew when we planned the trip that it was a rush job, but we decided to cover as much territory as possible, sacrificing time at each place.  We longed for more time at Arches and vowed to return soon and concentrate on the park for several days, along with the vast Canyonlands National Recreation Area across the road.

Back in Moab we found a decent local place for pizza and pasta and beer and then sacked out at the most expensive Hampton outside of Manhattan I've ever experienced: over $200 for the night with tax.  I had shopped Best Westerns and other hotel properties in Moab before deciding on the Hampton, and despite the great number of hotels in the town, none were much different in price.  Moab has become a popular destination where hoteliers get a good yield.

Next morning we were off early again on our longest one-day ride, over 500 miles across southern Utah to Las Vegas.  This part of our odyssey was new territory for me, and I didn't know what to expect. 

The drive was gorgeous and highly recommended west of Moab.  At 80 MPH (the posted speed limit on much of the drive), we covered a lot of ground fast, stopping only in a part of Zion National Park to see more beautiful red rock canyons and to take a short hike to stretch our aching legs.

We reached Las Vegas shortly after 2:00 PM and found a spot in the cavernous self-parking garage at The Venetian by 2:30 PM.  I presented myself at The Venetion's front desk at 2:35 PM, fully aware that check-in was not guaranteed until 3:00 PM.

I'd upgraded our reservation in advance to a suite for around $230 because we were five people in the room, and I prepaid for it because The Venetian requires it.  When I got to the head of the long check-in line, the fellow serving me said the suite I'd booked would not accommodate five guests, that in fact it was illegal "because of fire codes."  He insisted that we would need a larger suite, about 1000 square feet in size, for an extra $75/night. 

OK by me.  I wanted to experience a big Las Vegas casino suite out of curiosity, and so I didn't argue.  He charged my Amex card but then said the room would not be ready "for another 30-40 minutes" despite the fact that it was close to 3:00 PM, official check-in time.  He suggested I give him my cell phone number and wait, which I did, sending my wife and kids off to explore the faux Venetian canal and other fantasy features of the property.

I wandered out the front door and spent a leisurely 50 minutes watching people come and go, observing a wide variety of humankind in various states of undress and disparate moods.  The number of folks chain-smoking while slurping a glass of Champagne or a cocktail made me ponder the correlation between gambling and other addictive behaviors.

At 3:45 PM I got tired of waiting for the call: the call that never came. 

I went back inside to the front desk and once again endured the long check-in line until my turn came.  This time the clerk serving me was an Asian woman.  I gave her my particulars and explained that I'd been waiting a long time and that it was now almost 4:00 PM, one hour past the time when rooms were guaranteed to be ready.

The woman wore a permanent frown.  While pecking away at her computer she never made eye contact, but managed to assume a snotty, rude, and ultimately hostile, demeanor as she related how The Venetian could not guarantee when our room would be ready.

"It could be HOURS!" she loudly stated in an exasperating tone.

I kept a calm tone to my voice, though her attitude was fiercely irritating, and I told her that I was owed an accurate estimate of room availability.  This accentuated the woman's belligerence, and she fairly berated me as if I had demanded something unreasonable.  Her tone and volume attracted the attention of a manager, but no intervention occurred.

I therefore requested a manager, and after glowering at me for a few long moments, the clerk walked over to the manager who had looked up and spent a good four or five minutes explaining, no doubt, what a jackass of a customer I was.  How dare I demand to know when our room would be ready!

I surmised this by the frosty manner in which Donna, the manager, finally approached me.  "How can I help you, sir?" she said through clenched teeth.  The clerk was by her side, staring me down.

"Well, first off, I'd like to tell you my my side of the story, as you seemed to have spent a long time hearing your clerk's version," I started.

"I already KNOW your side, sir," Donna claimed.

That set me off, but I knew that I had to persist in a calm demeanor, so I took a deep breath and related the facts of my poor experience at The Venetian thus far, stating at the end that the second clerk was the worst possible advertisement for hotel customer service I'd ever witnessed and would not have made it through the first day of training at chains like Hyatt.  I said that she should be fired on the spot.

During my discourse I explained that the first clerk had upsold me to a larger suite despite the fact that their proprietary website had let me book a smaller suite for five people.

Donna softened as she listened to me, and I could see I was getting through to her.  I let her digest what I'd told her while she clicked away on screen, probably verifying what the first clerk had done. 

After a few minutes, Donna volunteered that the first clerk had lied to me in order to sell a larger room, and that in fact the hotel was oversold on the larger suite, which was why the second clerk was stalling me.  They simply had no large suites and would not have any, she said.  Would I be willing to have the extra $75 charge reversed and take instead the original suite booked, of which the hotel had plenty free and ready for occupancy?

"Yes," I stated, "by all means.  I want the room at once."

The Asian clerk, still hovering beside Donna, apparently realized that things had suddenly turned in my favor and that she might be in trouble.  She blurted out that The Venetian would comp all our food and drink during our one-night stay.

"NO!" I exclaimed.  "I don't want monetary compensation.  I want YOU fired and an acknowledgement from you that your behavior was rude and unprofessional, along with an apology.  Showering me with free stuff will not restore the good will of The Venetian or make my stay here pleasant or make me forget the way I was mistreated."

The clerk did not apologize, though the manager, Donna, did.  She gave me the room keys to 20-108, and I took my family up to the room.  It was now past 4:30 PM, almost two hours since we'd arrived.

It was an inexcusable experience for management to suffer upon a guest at any hotel. 

Later we walked up and down The Strip as far as the Mandalay Bay and made it a point not to spend any money at The Venetian.  I kept quiet and let my family come to the same conclusion I was thinking, which they did, that Las Vegas fantasy hotels are overblown and seedy.  Not one of the big joints we entered (New York, Paris, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, Bellagio, Venetian, etc.) lived up to the hype of the guidebooks.  Not even close.  My kids, ages 12 and 7, didn't even like them.

And on the streets we were accosted every few feet by mainly Hispanic men and women flipping call girl cards at me and my kids.  Me, I am a Libertarian when it comes to such things.  Let people do as they please, whether boozing, whoring, or gambling.  But don't push it on me, my wife, and my kids.  That's over the line.

We put Las Vegas behind us early the next morning and drove the 280 miles or so to the Grand Canyon.  There we enjoyed two glorious days and nights in the great outdoors at one of the world's natural treasures.  Most of us hiked 3.5 miles (I made it 2.5 miles before my knees gave out)down the Bright Angel Trail and back up again (in a little over five hours, including a picnic lunch near the bottom); we dined at El Tovar; we hiked the rim to the Geology Center; we attended an evening Ranger lecture on ravens; and we enjoyed the recently-completed renovations at Yavapai, our accommodations.  It was the fitting cap of a great week of adventure.



Not wishing to leave, we departed the Grand Canyon on Saturday and drove the 220 miles back to Phoenix.  To break up the trip I drove through Oak Creek Canyon to Sedona from just south of Flagstaff, a big mistake.  The traffic in Sedona was nearly gridlocked, and we inched along through one roundabout after another until we cleared the area after a lot of frustration.

The cheapest hotel of the trip turned out to be the Phoenix Airport Hilton at $79/night.  I turned the car back to Hertz that night to avoid doing so at 3:30 Easter Sunday morning.  The room was comfortable, and the staff was cheerful.  Early Sunday morning we took the hotel shuttle back to the airport and cleared security quickly (no new scanners yet at PHX).

In coach again on our American flights to DFW and RDU, I didn't even bother to approach the podium because we had decent seats close to the front.  I was surprised when my name was called just prior to boarding.  The flight was overbooked, and AA needed five seats for another family.  Would we mind all five of us being upgraded to First Class at no charge?

I agreed.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

China & Vietnam Travel Interlude: A tale of one and a half trips

It's taking me months to find the time to write about the 16 days my family and I spent traveling over parts of China and Vietnam in December. I have much more to impart, and I will get back to it.

But first here's a quick story of two recent domestic trips--er, I mean one and a half trips, since the second one is in progress.

NOTHING TO COMPLAIN OF IN NEW YORK

On a late March three-day weekend made possible by my children's school calendar, my wife and I took our two kids, ages 12 and 7, plus our 17 year old Italian exchange student, to New York City. We love Manhattan and try to visit every year or two for at least a few days, usually in the spring or the fall.

On our most recent visits we stayed at two Hilton properties, the elegant Waldorf Towers (two years back) and the Doubletree-Times Square (four years ago). Both weekends were memorable partly because of the luxe accommodations, and we wondered if the kids would be disappointed this time, since the only reasonably-priced hotel I could find was a more modest Hilton property, the Hampton Inn-Times Square North on Eight Avenue between 51st and 52nd.

"Reasonable" being a relative term in Manhattan, of course. With tax the room came to $500 for two nights, which of course included breakfast and free Internet just like all Hampton properties. Sounds steep, but that slept and fed five of us in one room for two nights. Comfortably even.

But I am getting ahead of myself, and I promised this would be a short story. We schlepped out to Raleigh-Durham Airport well before dawn on Friday for our 6:00 AM flight to LaGuardia on an American Eagle tiny jet. Amazingly it left on time, and all five of us dozed the 80 minutes of flight time, awakening just in time to get a glimpse of the City as we descended.

We caught a cab to the Hampton Inn-Times Square North and checked in before 8:30 AM. Naturally no rooms were ready, but we stowed our luggage with the bellman.

To my surprise the front desk clerks urged us to have breakfast at the hotel, even though we'd just arrived. So we did.

We found the Hampton-Times Square North to be ideally situated for walking to Times Square (just a block away) and elsewhere. Doing a lot of walking, with a few cabs, and one long subway ride, we managed to do half the great touristy things one should do in NYC on Friday and the other half on Saturday:

- Two Broadway shows ("Mama Mia" on Friday night and "Chicago" Saturday evening, with real close Orchestra seats at both shows purchased once we got to town; ticket prices were high, but not earth-shattering, and both shows were great entertainment)

- Harbor boat tour to see the Statue of Liberty and the City from the water (both the Hudson and East River sides)

- 102nd floor of the Empire State Building

- MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, where I almost had a heart attack seeing my son come with a millimeter of touching Picasso's "Three Musicians")

- Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art; we spent a lot of time in the ancient Egyptian exhibits)

- Chinatown (for a mediocre meal--but maybe we were spoiled by real Chinese food in China)

- Little Italy (where tee shirts were on sale that read "Do I look like a f***ing people person?")

- Subway (OK, it's just the subway, but we don't have a metro in Raleigh)

- Ice-skating at the Rockefellar Center rink (my wife downloaded $5 skating coupons from the Internet, and our kids had a ball)

- FAO Schwarz (where there's always some zany new toy being demonstrated)

- A long stroll down 5th Avenue (everyone enjoyed the shops, the people, the spectacular buildings, and the beauty of the boulevard in brilliant morning sun)

- Central Park (we traipsed across on foot from the east side at the Met to the west side at the Museum of Natural History, which we did not go into because it was jammed)

To do all those things we bought a CityPass for each adult ($79 each) and child ($59 per) that included entrances into most of the above (except ice-skating). CityPass coupon books are a tremendous bargain, assuming a buyer uses all the coupons, which we did.

Manhattan was gorgeous all weekend, if cold. Saturday it dropped into the low 20s with a wicked wind chill, but we bundled up well and were comfortable. The miles of walking probably helped to keep our furnaces stoked.

The Hampton Inn on 8th Ave proved to be flexible and hospitable throughout our stay, and very family-friendly. They didn't object to five in the room (official policy in most NYC hotels is four max per room). There is even a concierge desk at that Hampton, manned day and night with a patient and knowledgeable professional who actually likes kids.

We had need to call hotel engineering at the height of the busy weekend (every room booked), and yet they responded within minutes and repaired the plumbing problem in less than ten minutes.

One nit: The breakfast area is too small. It was unimaginably crowded at the peak morning hour between 8:30 and 9:30. Lines out the door. Hotel staff had difficulty keeping food stocked fast enough to feed the hungry multitudes. Many patrons were wandering with plates in hand in search of a seat, and I'm pretty sure I could have sold our table for $50. Still, no one pulled a gun on anyone for grabbing their bagel, and in fact the mood was friendly, even neighborly.

Despite the competition for victuals, we managed to amply fill our five bellies all three mornings, and I have no beef with the Hampton. It was a bit of a hassle, but if I could have gotten our kids moving faster, we'd have avoided the worst of the breakfast congestion.

I completed a guest survey when we departed, and later got a personal email from Laura Maldonado, Guest Service Manager at the hotel. She addressed my concern and invited us back. We liked the place so much that we'll probably return on our next trip to the City. Yes, it lacks the elegance and style of the Waldorf, but it was comfortable, efficient, and friendly. And not too pricey.

Our trip home Sunday on American Eagle again was just about perfect, as had been the Friday flight up. It left from JFK rather than LaGuardia, though, a fact I had not noticed during the booking process weeks before.

Stupid me, I paid for a cab to LaGuardia before discovering the error and having to high-tail it to JFK in a second (expensive) taxi to make our flight. I was impressed at Kennedy with the new American terminal. Maybe it's because I suffered for years there while AA completed it. It's airy and sunny and attractive, and even easy to use.

All in, it was just about a perfect New York weekend. (I really hate it when I can't find much to complain about.)

KUDOS TO CONTINENTAL, ER, UNITED, ER, WHATEVER

This week I am in Pahrump, Nevada taking a four-day defensive handgun course at the Front Sight Firearms Institute with pal David Rowell who writes "The Travel Insider." Unless you live in Nevada, I doubt you'd ever heard of Pahrump, let alone been here.

Pahrump is a sizable unincorporated town about an hour west of Las Vegas and 30 miles east of Death Valley, California. The surrounding snow-capped peaks contrast with the Joshua trees along the highway that signal this is a really hot desert. It has its charm if you like the outdoors, which I do, and I love coming here. It's the Great American West.

One must fly to Las Vegas and rent a car to reach Pahrump, which is exactly what I did. Fares were best on Continental, and I wanted to experience the airline in its transition to unite with United, so I purchased my ticket and dutifully went to RDU last Sunday for my CO flights to Cleveland and then LAS.

But the little commuter plane that was to carry me to Cleveland broke down en route to Raleigh, and Continental had to re-route me through Houston at the very last minute. I watched closely as the CO staff at RDU, already cut to the bone, worked hard but coolly and efficiently to rebook everyone, including me.

They put me on a United CRJ to IAH, and I expected it to be like, well, like United: arrogant, rude, unfriendly. Not like Continental. But it wasn't bad. The UA crew praised the merger in progress, were polite, and accepted my Continental scrip for a drink en route to Houston. I was impressed. Maybe CO won't catch UA's germs after all.

In Houston I was to ride a 757 to Las Vegas. I had resigned myself to Sardine Class even though I remain a Continental Gold Elite card holder, which entitles me to upgrades when available. I was therefore bowled over to have the gate agent hand me a First Class boarding pass, and I enjoyed a pleasant experience on the three-hour flight Houston-Las Vegas.

I made it to Las Vegas only 25 minutes later than I would have flying on the original flights. Not only did my luggage get re-routed properly (I was worried it wouldn’t make it), but my bag was the fourth one off the belt. The "Priority" tag actually worked for once.

And I just received an email from Continental that I've been upgraded from Las Vegas to Cleveland tomorrow night. Kudos to Continental! Let's all hope the CO culture prevails at the new United.