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, January 17, 2013

Sick in Sonoma and San Francisco

Sometimes what sounds like a good idea for a pleasure trip takes an unexpected turn.  My wife planned to visit her family in the Twin Cities, taking our kids with her, on Christmas Day for five nights.  She wanted me to go, too.  It sounded OK on the face of it.  That is, until I heard that it was going to be a lot like Chevy Chase's house in the movie Christmas Vacation:  Thirteen relatives bunking together with nowhere to go in the ice and snow, no rental car to take you there, and cots set up in the basement.  All the scene needed was a rusty RV in the driveway and Randy Quaid with a dog named "Snots."

I politely demurred and instead planned my own mini-vacation separate from the family to visit good friends in San Francisco.  Another old friend I've known since childhood, now a Supreme Court justice in the State of Washington, decided to join us.  The four of us would drive up to Sonoma for a couple of days and nights to enjoy the wine country, an experience to be made especially delightful thanks to my San Francisco friends' memberships in a number of Sonoma wine clubs.

My American Airlines connection on Christmas Day took me RDU/JFK.  I found it utterly bizarre to be at JFK on Christmas night waiting for AA177 to SFO, though I felt fortunate to have been upgraded.  The aircraft was a three-class 767, one of a peculiar dedicated fleet AA keeps just for Transcon service (JFK/LAX, JFL/SFO). 

On board it was like being in a time machine back to the 1990s.  The aircraft was fitted with two rows of ancient First Class seats in a 2-1-2 configuration, the ones that are real wide but don't recline fully flat.  This was followed by four or five rows of old style Business Class seats (just realized I didn't count the Business rows) in a 2-2-2 configuration.  

I opted for seat 7G in the first row of Business.  The seats were quite narrow and cramped, but far better than coach, of course.  The plane wasn't full, so I had an empty seat beside mine which made the flight even more comfortable.

I later learned from Joe Brancatelli that AA's three-class Transcon configurations are indeed about 20 years old and will be replaced in late 2013.

Boarding Champagne was served (OK, the bubbly was from Spain, but it was tasty) in Business and First--a happy surprise--and a light snack was served en route which was edible if not memorable.  Flight attendants distributed Samsung tablets loaded with movies and the newest generation of Bose noise-cancelling headphones.  I had two books with me, too.

With all those diversions, it was a fast six hours, or close to it.  Got in early to SFO but had to wait 30 minutes for a gate. Then it took another half hour to get from the gate to the Airtrain to the remote rental car facility. 

With no GPS in my Hertz car, I had a hard time finding the Hilton Union Square on O'Farrell Street in the dark and rain. But by the following morning early, I was up, showered, dressed, packed, and ready for our trip to Sonoma.  

Because the weather was overcast, breezy, and chilly, I was too lazy to leave the hotel to find a restaurant for breakfast and made the mistake of eating in the Hilton's modest breakfast cafe.  Thirty dollars lighter after pancakes, bacon, and a Coke Zero, I squinted at the bill and was about to leave a tip despite the outrageous bill when I noticed that I'd been charged 17.5% already for "service."  Since when did hotels start adding service to bills for single diners?

Another high cost was parking.  The night before when I'd arrived in the cold rain after being lost for a half hour the hotel had directed me to the self-park parking around back.  There I was told it would be $57 to park from then (just past 10:00 PM) until early the next morning (we were leaving before 8:00 AM).  

"How much would it cost if I just stayed an hour?" I asked.  

"$57," came the answer.

Way too much when you are on vacation and paying for it out of your own pocket, I reckoned.  Funny how you are not sensitive to such high costs when you are on business and being reimbursed.  

I drove around the block and found a private 24-hour parking garage where the $25 overnight charge seemed like a bargain.

My three friends and I took off north over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, bound for Sonoma.  By midday we were tooling around the northern wine country and sipping tiny amounts of mighty fine Pinots, Cabernets, and Chards at every winery.  We had brought cheese, olives, and sandwich material and had a mid-afternoon picnic while imbibing even more wine.

By evening we were well-soused and ready for dinner and bed.  Our friends from San Francisco had reserved rooms at a nice bed-and-breakfast in Healdsburg, the name of which I will withhold for the moment (explanation to come).  My friends' wine club memberships got us a 50% discount, so the rooms were half the normal $350 per night (plus tax).  

My jaw dropped at the stratospheric price: $350 for a B&B?  My Bay Area friends patiently explained that they'd looked into buying a house in Healdsburg and had discovered that modest 2,000 sq.ft. places (old construction, not modern) sell for $850,000.  I would guess that makes Healdsburg homes some of the most expensive real estate in the country.  It's more than twice what the toniest residential areas of Raleigh go for.  No wonder, they said, that a Healdsburg B&B has to charge so much.

It made me wonder if the richest, so-called "one percent" of our population might be larger than 1%.  Who the hell can afford such prices, especially considering that for most Healdsburg buyers, this would be a second home, used infrequently?

We stayed two days and nights at the pricey B&B, during which time we had some bizarre encounters with the “Mrs. Fawlty” who, with her husband, owns and runs the place.  It seemed to all of us that she was intent on making our guest experience a sort of low level misery while in her care.  Those stories deserve their own separate blog post, perhaps next week.  I will be discreet and use pseudonyms.

The morning we were to head back to San Francisco I suddenly and without warning became ill.  One minute I was OK, and the next I was feverish, coughing, wheezing, with my sinuses running like Niagara Falls.  

Whatever it was, I came down with something terrible out there and spent the next three days on my back once checked in again at the Hilton Union Square.  Our entire family had flu shots last fall, but I couldn't help wondering as I lay there, weak and helpless, if I hadn't somehow come down with influenza despite the vaccination.  

Being laid up and incapacitated for three days in a hotel room a long way from home was a unique experience for me.  After more than three decades of nonstop travel as a consultant, I have certainly had my share of colds and occasional stomach viruses while on the road.  But nothing like this.

I barely had the energy to sit up and read occasionally.  Mostly I rested, though with the fierce coughing, I don't recall much sleeping.  I must have dozed a lot.  The hotel cleaning staff came and went; I hardly noticed them.  I drank a lot of fluids and took a lot of Alka-Seltzer Plus Cold medicine.

My friend the Washington State Supreme Court justice kept tabs on me day and night; she didn't want the maids to be the first ones to find my body if I died.  She went out and about San Francisco doing all the things we'd planned to do together, having lots of fun, while I lay in the room watching the sun move slowly across the horizon.

I thought about how I was paying a lot of money for that Hilton room, and for the rental car, and for the daily parking for the rental car, all money that was going down a rat hole while I suffered.  I thought about the irony of how much I always enjoy being in San Francisco--right out my window--and yet I might as well have been a million miles away.  It was surreal.

To save money I'd booked a red-eye on American back to the East Coast, and when the night came to leave, I mustered my strength and drove to the airport.  After returning the Hertz car, I sat exhausted in the Admirals Club for several hours, dozing and bleary-eyed, waiting for the late evening departure. At the very last minute the Club staff took pity on me and upgraded me again to Business Class.

I barely remember the flight back to JFK on an identical 762 to the one I'd flown out on.  I felt deeply grateful to American Airlines for providing me with a comfortable seat in which to rest at a time when I really needed such a seat.  I spurned all offers of Champagne or food. I drank a lot of water and slept when I wasn't coughing my lungs out.

Once home, I high-tailed it to my doc, who tested me for the flu (came back negative) and explained about the many nasty non-flu germs going around this winter.  He said what was ailing me was persistent and enervating.  

Three prescriptions later, I am finally back up to an almost full energy level.  It’s been years since I was laid so low.  The purgatory of that San Francisco hotel room when I was at my weakest will be a lasting unpleasant memory.  

Nonetheless, as an inveterate traveler with sixty years of experience wandering the globe, I know it'll become a good story to laugh about with friends and family for years to come.  


Anonymous Jeremy said...

I feel your pain about being sick while on vacation! I just came back from Portland where I spent most of my stay in a hotel room with a stomach bug. Fortunately I recovered a bit faster than you, but I barely got to see any of Portland and saw lots of the "De Luxe Hotel" downtown.

1/17/2013 8:45 PM  

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