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 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.

4 Comments:

Blogger Jeremy said...

What caused you to check your luggage on the Vegas flight? I thought you said you NEVER check bags, even on long international flights...

4/08/2011 3:34 AM  
Blogger hulananni said...

Love the New York 'experience"....reminds me of mine many years ago when a Bronx-born uncle showed me the city from top to bottom.

4/08/2011 2:27 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Jeremy,

You are correct: I NEVER check my bag...except when I am forced to. In this case I was traveling with my .45 semi-automatic pistol in my suitcase for use at the Front Sight handgun course, and TSA requires weapons to be in locked and approved gun cases inside checked luggage. So I had no choice.

4/11/2011 12:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does anyone think this man has a valid opinion about ANYthing? What makes HIM an expert? My experience is that he is a pushy, arrongant man who thrives on belittling people he comes in contact with....That's all I have to say about THIS "blogger".

4/22/2011 12:16 AM  

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