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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Marriott is a Marriott is a Marriott

Upon arrival to Washington Union Station on a recent conference trip to D.C., I found my way outside, waited five minutes in line, and caught a cab to my destination, the Washington Marriott at the corner of M and 22nd Streets ($16, including tip, not bad for PM rush hour). The hotel sits in the heart of NW Washington, where all the D.C. money is. The many billions spent every year by lobbyists are dispensed on nearby K Street, and you can almost hear the legislative cash registers ringing from the corner of M and 22nd.

Still, there's nothing special about the Washington Marriott. It's a cookie-cutter urban property with the same damn tiny rooms that Marriott is famous for. Check-in was swift, and the clerk accommodated my request to change my preassigned room from a lower floor to the eighth floor, room 855.

Sure enough, though the room was nicely appointed, it was small. The chair under the narrow and wobbly desk could not be moved out to sit in without hitting the bed and blocking passage to get to the windows. I liked the flatscreen HD TV, though I hardly had time to watch more than 20-30 minutes a night. There is a narrow and almost unusable space between the bed and the window where Marriott has nonetheless crammed in a lamp.

I've been on sailboats with bigger heads (bathrooms) than the one in room 855. The sink didn't even face the mirror because it was forced into one corner. The tub/shower was roomy enough, but the oversized rainwater showerhead had little water volume, and the outward shower curtain bulge that's now standard in every hotel room caused the shower curtain to bow out over the toilet seat because the toilet was installed so close to the tub by necessity. The closet by the room door was miniscule; it reminded me of the narrow closets on airplanes.

All this lux for a mere $331 per night, the generous and special conference rate! I was assured by Marriott reservation agents when I booked the room that this was half the rack rate.

Oh, and by the way, it's another $13 per day (plus tax) for wifi. I used my BlackBerry instead. Paying $662 for two nights in a plain-vanilla Marriott made me sour enough without having to fork over more for a commonplace product that's included in the room rate most places. A hotel that charges guests for the Internet these days makes as much sense as charging extra for towels and soap--but maybe I shouldn't give them any ideas.

Marriott's snazzier brand, the Ritz-Carlton, is just a half block away on the other side of the street. I decided to treat myself to another visit to its beautiful bar, done up with proper dark wood and muted lighting. I enjoyed Champagne and cheese there two years ago, and I wanted a repeat experience. The menu seemed not to have changed, with a bottle of Taittinger nonvintage brut at $80 and a cheese plate for less than $20. Knowing I couldn't drink 750 ml of fine French Champagne without falling asleep in my chair, I opted for two glasses of the Taittinger at $16 per.

The Champagne and the cheese went well together, as usual, and I was soon hoofing it back to the Marriott. Out of curiosity I stopped in the bar there to check out their bill of fare. I was amused to find the Marriott offering a bottle of Mumm California champagne at $60 for the bottle, or $13 per glass. Mumm made in Napa is fine, but it's far inferior to Taittinger made in France, and yet the Ritz price for the Taittinger was a great bargain by comparison to the Marriott's price for Mumm. I didn't order any.

Both nights in the hotel were quiet on the eighth floor, and I slept well.  The HVAC fan rattled a bit, but it didn't keep me awake, and thankfully the thermostat functioned properly, avoiding wild swings between too hot and too cold (a problem in some hotel rooms).  I give the Marriott credit for delivering the Wall Street Journal to my door each morning, which has long been the preference stored in my Marriott profile.  Note to self: Now that the mendacious Rupert Murdoch has defiled and debased the once-great WSJ, change the newspaper preference in my Marriott account to anything but.

I did not try the hotel's restaurant, just as I had not two years previous, because the menu was unimpressive and the ambiance dull.  Instead, I ambled over to K Street to dine with colleagues at McCormick & Schmick's.  I don't doubt for a second that their signature crab cakes outshone anything on offer at the Marriott.

Two days later when my rail conference concluded, I checked out and got a taxi from the Marriott to Washington Union Station for my train home. Leaving the hotel at 1:00 PM I thought I'd be fine for traffic, but instead it took 25 minutes (and $20) to make the journey. Heavy traffic and construction everywhere delayed the cab's progress.

Sitting in the cab in Washington's stop-and-go crawl, I reflected on all the hotels I'd stayed in for over three decades.  A hundred?  Two hundred?  More?  Some weeks I stayed in the same property for 4-5 nights running, but many weeks I was in and out of three or four hotels in three or four different cities.  I didn't keep count, but I remember what I liked and what I disliked.  

There's a lot to be said for product consistency from hotel property to hotel property, but that formula can also get boring.  Boring can be forgiven--or at least overlooked--when the room rate feels like a bargain.  The Washington Marriott, though, charges dearly and strictly for location without giving anything back. It seems like they could polish the experience into something more memorable.  Given its expense and lackluster commodity service offering, I'd never choose to go back.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Amtrak Redux

When planning my October 9-11 trip to Washington to attend a Railway Age rail conference, I considered three options for getting there from Raleigh: slogging it out on I-95 with the gajillions of others on the road; flying to Reagan or Dulles; or taking the train.  Two years ago, attending the same conference, I used Amtrak going north and flew home.  I recall the train trip favorably.

Should I drive?  Certainly the horrendous traffic hasn't improved since 2010 in and around the District of Columbia, a fact directly related to the two wars plus domestic so-called "homeland" security:  Government and private sector businesses have flowered on account of Defense Department and TSA spending to feed the wars and domestic jitters.  And darned if all those folks getting rich off gov'ment contracts didn't bring their cars with them. 

The result is that no one in their right mind would volunteer to drive I-95 north of Richmond these days.  The last time I did it I swore I'd never do it again, and I am a veteran of Los Angeles, NYC, and Chicago traffic congestion who has never made such a personal pledge driving elsewhere in those cities.  Washington traffic now rates among the worst metro areas in the country.

Which brings me to the flying option.  Anybody notice how airfares have skyrocketed this year?  The distance from Raleigh to Washington is less than 300 miles, and the cost to fly there used to be in the $100-125 range one way.  Snagging such a reasonable fare is rare now.  My wife flew to Washington for a one-day conference recently on an advance purchase, nonrefundable ticket, and her company paid an astonishing $561.  Nor could I find any reasonable fares for the midweek dates I needed.

Amtrak certainly looked like the best price option at just $122 round trip, which included a surcharge for Business Class on the northbound leg.  Train travel is also a lot less stressful than driving, and it's far more comfortable than a coach seat on an airplane. 

So I booked a train north to Washington (train 80, the Carolinian) which left Raleigh on Tuesday at 10:25 AM and was scheduled to arrive Washington Union Station at 4:37 PM.  Returning after my conference ended at lunch on Thursday, I caught a 3:00 PM train (number 91, the Silver Star) scheduled to get to Raleigh at about 9:00 PM.

My decision to use Amtrak proved to be a good one.  Amtrak train 80, the Carolinian, left right on time at 10:25 AM.  My Business Class seat was comfortable, cushy, and with tons of what airlines catch "pitch" (the distance between seatbacks).  It was better than a domestic First Class airplane seat.  The friendly and solicitous Amtrak hostess attending the Business Class car promptly offered me complimentary juices, water, and soft drinks, and even brought cups with ice to accompany them.  She kept me refilled the entire trip.

The train crew broadcast regular updates of our progress, including reasons for stops and slowdowns, and they were friendly in answering questions.  I opened my laptop and discovered Amtrak's complimentary wifi service worked great (and without a glitch all the way to DC).  The car was maintained in great shape, though the toilets could have been cleaner.  There was plenty of overhead room for my suitcase and briefcase.

At lunchtime I found that the adjacent Cafe Car had a decent selection of microwave sandwiches (as good or better than most airport sandwich fare), and the prices were reasonable.  I worked, read, ate, drank, napped, took phone calls, and enjoyed the passing scenery for six hours up to Washington, arriving 45 minutes late owing to track congestion on the CSX north of Richmond.  Even with the delay, I was relaxed and had no complaints.  Standing alone, the Amtrak train was a civilized, pleasant, and comfortable way to travel.  Compared to the stress of driving up I-95 or of running the TSA/airline gauntlet at the airports, it was heaven on earth.

I have always loved America's civic cathedrals, the grand old railroad stations mostly conceived and built in the early twentieth century when train travel was at its apex in luxury, comfort, and speed.  One of my few complaints of the magnificent Washington Union Station is that, even with its modern makeover, many parts of it are dark and uninviting.

That's especially true where the through tracks from the South on the east side of the station complex deposit their passengers.  Travelers must make their way up ancient escalators into the depressing and dingy hall that leads to the main station concourse.   The walk is slightly creepy, not a winning welcome to our nation's capital city, even though the reward is the spectacular and well-lit vaulted ceiling at the front entrance. 

Once outside, I waited five minutes in line and caught a cab to my destination, the Washington Marriott at the corner of M and 22nd Streets, where other experiences awaited me.  But that's a story for a post next week.

Two days later when my rail conference concluded, I found myself back at Washington Union Station.  Waiting for my train I noticed again how the interior of the beautiful old terminal has grown shabby and shopworn.  I also discovered that there is no men's room on the east side, only a women's toilet.  I was told to go to the McDonald's at the extreme east end of the concourse, but once there I was confronted with the filthiest McDonald's I've ever seen anywhere in the world, and the non-English speaking janitor made it known that the men's room was permanently out of order.  After seeing what the rest of the restaurant looked like, I thought it was probably just as well not to witness its toilet.

Eventually, after asking a lot of people, I found a men's room on the extreme west end of the concourse, as far a walk as one can make from the southbound gates my train left from.  The men's toilet was disgustingly dirty.  I've seen cleaner public toilets in rural Jahor Province of southern Malaysia than the one in Washington Union Station.

Altogether, I was ashamed of the station's condition.  We should keep this important gateway for foreign and American visitors spotless and pristine.  Instead, it gives the message that we are a slovenly people who don't care about cleanliness and order and are in decline as a culture.

Amtrak 91, the Silver Star, was dead on time leaving Washington and dead on time arriving Raleigh six hours later.  Service was excellent going south, just as it was going north, with friendly and helpful staff everywhere. However, train 91 had no Wifi.  Luckily I had an interesting seatmate with whom to converse.

I enjoyed a passable, if over-priced, meal of crab cakes in the Silver Star’s diner,  but the plastic booths were ugly, extremely cramped, and uncomfortable. My seatmate at dinner had to put his feet into the aisle to have room for us both. Amtrak's dining car décor was stark, depressing, and harsh, giving me the impression of what the East Germans circa 1975 might have thought was high cotton for behind-the-Iron-Curtain rail dining car service. The general feeling was to eat and leave as soon as possible, despite the nice staff.

Contrast that description of the Amtrak Silver Star diner with the cheerful décor of the Chinese diner I experienced in December, 2011 between Hanoi and Nanning in the southern province of Guangxi:

Diner on Chinese train Hanoi, Vietnam to Nanning, Guangxi, China, December 26, 2011

It was a not a fancy high-speed Chinese train. Far from it, the train was made up of ordinary conventional speed equipment. But I’d take the Chinese diner any day over the Amtrak one.

That one nit aside, my overall experience with Amtrak on both trains was excellent, and I plan to take the train again next time.  I endorse Amtrak as a great alternative to flying or driving where the oportunity exists.