Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fear and Loathing - Montpelier - 7 (and final)

On my last day at the Vermont client, I was flying home from Burlington to Washington Reagan to DFW. There was a complication in that the first lady was visiting Burlington, and the local streets around BTV were subject to closure from mid afternoon on - my flight was at 5:10. The first lady was coming for a fund raiser – there was no need to campaign in the People’s Republic of Vermont.

I looked at my FlightCaster iPhone app (really good app) and saw that my BTV/DCA flight was described as 'probably delayed' due to late inbound aircraft, on account of an earlier mechanical. My connection time at DCA was not very long, but it is a compact airport and the distance between gates is not bad.  (They also have a Potbelly Sandwich Works, which I really like.) So, with a possibly compromised flight, and concern about not even being able to get to the airport, I bailed work and went to BTV early.

I checked with the US Airways ticket counter, and the young lady said my connection was right on the edge. She rebooked me BTV/PHL/DFW. The connection in PHL was an hour or so, but I would be arriving at the dreaded commuter terminal F, so no slacking around.

The Air Wisconsin RJ sat for a while awaiting sequencing, passed by Michelle Obama's plane (spiffy looking 757), and headed south. About halfway there I could feel it slowing. Then I saw the same golf course out the window a couple of times. The captain came on and said PHL was not accepting any aircraft for landing. Storms? Lots of clouds and haze but no storms in the forecast. They gave no explanation as to why Philadelphia was not accepting aircraft.

Eventually we resumed course.

When we landed we passed a B-747 with 'United States of America' on the side. Yes, Air Force One had PHL shut down completely for a while.

I barely made it to my connection, getting there just as they were boarding, not stopping to pick up something to eat.  I got stuck in the window bulkhead seat on an A-319 Scarebus, which is as claustrophobic as it gets.  The plan sat at the gate for 90 minutes as PHL tried to recover from the effects of the presidential closure. We had another delay because the tug that was pushing us back broke down.

But the drinks were free in coach.  I had a can of almonds for dinner.

(Know anyone else who flies from Washington to Philadelphia?)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fear and Loathing - Montpelier - 6

My worst travel day was fairly early on during my treks back and forth to Montpelier, Vermont.  One Thursday, getaway day, I had an email from US Airways about a flight cancellation.  To their credit, the email was postmarked 5:24 AM, which was nearly 12 hours prior to the time of the flight.  The cancelled flight was from Burlington to Washington Reagan (DCA).  The email said to call their 800 number.   As it happened, some executives from the Dallas office were in the guest house that week, and I alerted them to what was going on.  But I think they went on United through Chicago, because I didn't see them later.

What I learned was that US Airways had a mechanical cancellation, and did not have another aircraft available to fill in, and they knew it well ahead of time.  They rebooked me on another US Airways flight to Philadelphia, and from there I was booked on an Airbus to Dallas/Fort Worth.  Okay, fine.  The departure was a little earlier than what I had planned.  I had an hour to connect at Philadelphia.

I got on the flight to PHL, and it was a tiny plane, a CRJ, operated by Air Wisconsin.  I have had nothing but bad experiences with Air Wisconsin dating back to a couple of trips to Battle Creek back in the 80's, and this was no exception.  They boarded on time, and pushed back, but then parked over to the side somewhere awaiting sequencing into Philadelphia.  By the time the plane took off, nearly all of my hour was gone.  But, I figured, flight times are always less than what the timetable says, so I still have a chance.

The plane, unfortunately, went to the USAirways satellite terminal at PHL, the dreaded terminal F.  F as in ‘First Circle of Hell’, although other people choose a different word beginning with F.  From there you have to take a bus over to the regular terminal.  With my flight being late, and with crowding in the terminal itself, I arrived at my gate with only ten minutes to spare.

They had shut the door and were boarding no more passengers.  Technically, if you aren’t there fifteen minutes prior to departure, they can give away your seat, even if it’s their fault you were late.  They would do nothing for me.  I was stuck.

I called the 800 number I had called earlier, and they said I was booked on a flight the next morning.  It was only around 5 PM so I couldn’t believe they could not get me home, and I planned to work the next day.  I was just starting on this contract and wanted to show that I could work from home one day a week.

After some back and forth, US Airways pushed me over to a Delta flight that was going to Atlanta.  At Atlanta, I would have a 90 minute connection to a flight to DFW.  I felt pretty good about that.  I went to the gate, and they were boarding on time.  I have no status on Delta, and it was obvious my roller bag would need to be checked, so I checked it.  My seat on the B-737 was in the next to the last row, in the window.  I hate the window, but fine.

As the plane filled up, a man the size of Larry Allen took the middle seat, next to me.  He was supposed to be one row back, but that seat had been claimed by a child whose parent would otherwise have been separated.  My guy went along with it.  He was huge, and he was not fat, just very, very big.  I was being squeezed against the window as soon as he sat down.

The plane pushed back, went about a hundred yards from the gate, and sat there.  No announcement came from the crew.  The flight attendants paced around but had no information.  Finally, the captain came on and said they were having a problem with the computer.  They were trying to enter the fuel information, and the system was telling them they had to fill out some form and have it approved, and they didn’t have the form.  The irony was, according to the captain, Delta had been paperless for six months.  So we went back to the gate, and they took care of the paperwork.  By this time my back was in need of a transplant from the Larry Allen sized guy sitting next to me.  I am not small, but this guy was twice my size.

The plane left for Atlanta an hour and a half late.  Remember I had 90 minutes to connect. They lost some more time due to ATC in Atlanta, and I missed my second connection of the day.  Plus, I couldn’t stand up straight. 

The next task was to find a place to stay.  A bunch of us went to the Delta service counter, and they were taking the position that the delay was on account of ATC.  I was very happy that another guy got to set them straight.  He was forceful, but if it had been me, I probably would have ended up on the no-fly list for the rest of my life, or they would have reopened Andersonville.  At any rate, we got hotel vouchers.

Delta has a rebooking computer thing, and I got my new itinerary for the next day.  They were sending me on a tour of the old Northwest route system (Delta and Northwest merged a few years back).  They were sending me from Atlanta to La Guardia, then Detroit, then to Minneapolis, then to DFW.  I might have missed one.  It was a mileage runner’s dream.  I went to the service desk and basically said this is what the computer gave me.  The woman checked, just shook her head in amazement, and said all the nonstops the next day were open and I could have any of them.  I chose 8:30.

Off to the hotel.  We had a jam packed van, and I had to stand.  We got to the hotel, and had a very long wait in line while two clerks had a contest as to who could go slower.  Both won.  (All the customers were white men; the clerks were black women.)  I finally got to my room one-ish.

I set my travel alarm, and the alarm in the room, and asked for a wake-up call.  But I still slept poorly and woke up in the dark much too early.  I saw on my phone that they had wi-fi, and got out my laptop to play with it.  I looked up the hotel I was in (Comfort Inn North) and read up on it.  The hotel was given extremely bad ratings on account of bedbugs.

I saw no evidence of bedbugs, and I didn’t bring any home.

That morning I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight, and used my meal voucher for a nice breakfast.  Atlanta TSA were nice.  My flight was on an MD-80, and I got the two side to myself.  My wife was gracious enough to pick me up at around 9:30 AM Central.  Delta paged me, while I was waiting for my bag, because I had left my book in the seat pouch in front of me. 

I met some former co-workers for lunch that day.  The first guy that saw me asked if there was something wrong with my back.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fear and Loathing on the Way to Montpelier - 5

My luck traveling back and forth via Burlington was not very good.  I was able to get to Burlington pretty consistently, but the return was never routine.  Even on the outbound leg, there was always something going on about the drive over to Montpelier.  It might be precipitation – which was a problem in that it wasn’t usually rain.  After the weather got a little warmer, that snow started to melt, and late at night you would get pretty heavy fog.  Heavy fog, the dark, and roads you’re not familiar with make for a tough trip.  There was so little traffic on I-89 South that you couldn’t follow someone’s tail lights in the hope that they, at least, knew where they were going.  There were no other cars!

So I would often arrive at the guest house, at 10:30 or 11:00 at night, completely wired from the drive.  I didn’t want to take anything for sleep, because I usually feel like I’m in a daze the next day when I do that, so it would take forever to go to sleep.  Not an ideal situation for a consultant to show up for work totally exhausted.

I had toyed with the idea of traveling via Bradley International, aka Hartford.  I could get a non-stop on American, rent a car, and get to Montpelier in three hours.  I decided to try it once daylight savings time started, to give myself a chance to get there before it was totally dark.

My trip up on American was nice.  I had an aisle seat on a B-737.  I got some lunch at the Admiral’s Club at DFW, a chicken quesadilla.  It was Easter Sunday.  The plane got to Hartford on time, and I quickly (no checked bag) went to the Hertz off-airport location.  Bradley is a small airport and is easy to manage.  I got the car and followed the signs to the interstate.  I had hooked up my iPhone with an aux cable to the jack in the car, so I had some music to listen to. 

The drive was not all that enjoyable, but it was okay.  I stopped at a rest stop after crossing into Vermont, and it was just a rest stop.  Bathrooms and vending machines and some benches, nothing else.  I continued up I-91 and then I-89, but in Vermont it seemed that every bridge was being worked on.  The weather there beats up on the highways, and especially the bridges.  There are a lot of bridges because the state is mountainous and there are lots of little creeks and rivers you cross, and the interstate basically is in the valley carved out by the Connecticut River.  Nobody where I live has ever heard of it, but the Connecticut River is a big deal.  Every bridge was down to one lane, and sometimes the one lane was more like three fourths of a lane.  They can’t work on the roads in the winter, and they try to fix everything before the summer vacation season.

Traffic was very light, but most of it was trucks.  I wound into Montpelier just as it was getting dark.  On Easter everything was closed, except Shaw’s, the supermarket, and it was getting ready to close.  I ran in there and got some frozen something to cook in the guest house’s microwave.  And some wine.

So this night I got some decent sleep, and showed up for work in a better condition than other times.  I wasn’t sure this three hour drive thing would work, though.  I’m not a good long distance driver – whenever we go anywhere of any distance it seems my wife drives more than I do.  (Except in Ireland – that’s another story.)

At the end of the week, I left the office after lunch on Thursday.  My flight from BDL (Bradley International) left a little before 6 PM, and I felt I needed to allow an hour for rental car return and getting to the terminal, and then allow for security, and have a cushion.  Let me tell you – giving yourself extra time while traveling is the most important thing you can do for yourself.

I drove south on I-89, which is kind of a winding road for an interstate.  It follows the aforementioned Connecticut River, which is a winding river.  About half an hour south of Montpelier it was drizzling.  Up ahead, I saw a big bird in a field.  It was a wild turkey!  I had never seen one before.   It was a nice looking bird, but I was driving 65 miles per hour on a slightly wet road, so I couldn’t look at the bird.  The next thing I saw was this huge bird flying straight into the front of my rental.  One bad thing about cruise control – if I had my foot on the gas, I would have slammed on the brake and missed the bird, but I didn’t react fast enough.  The turkey crashed into the front of the car, and feathers flew everywhere.  He bounced off my car and hit in front of another car behind me – the one who might well have crashed into me had I slammed on the brake to miss the bird.

A short distance ahead there was a rest stop.  I pulled over to see what I could see.  What I saw was a hood with a dent big enough to rest a basketball in, but nothing leaking out. There were no warning lights and the car seemed to be running okay.  I called Hertz to report the accident.  They seemed to want me to take the car to the nearest Hertz facility, which was probably back in Burlington, where I wasn’t going.  They asked what was the closest major city.  I chose to define ‘major’ as ‘more than 50,000 people’, so I replied “Montreal, and I don’t have my passport.”  We decided I would continue to BDL.

As I crossed the border into Massachusetts, the sky opened up.  It was a torrential rain, an absolute frog drowner.  I was on the interstate with, for the most part, 18 wheelers, throwing up huge amounts of spray.  I could not stop, because I was trying to catch a flight home.  It was raining so hard that under any other circumstance I would have pulled over.  But I did have to reduce my speed considerably.

Finally, after about half an hour of storm, it eased off.  When I got to Hartford I found a gas station and filled up my poor damaged rental.  I drove to Hertz, and there were two ladies waiting for cars to come back and be checked in.  They just looked at me and didn’t say a word.  I said: “A wild turkey”.  One of them replied, “You’re the second one today”.  Oddly, that did make me feel a little better. 

I had declined the coverages, stupidly, because the client would have paid for them without question.  The damage ended up around $750, about half of which was paid by insurance, although they have raised my rates every six months ever since.

When I got to the airport, I did something I rarely do.  I went into the bar and had a Sam Adams.  When that was gone, I had another.  I bought a chicken sandwich on the plane.  I was fortunate to have my wife pick me up at DFW.

I did not book my flights through Hartford any more.

Throughout Vermont, they have signs on the road warning you about various kinds of wildlife.  Moose warnings, deer warnings, even bear warnings.  I never saw a turkey warning.

I needed to see one.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A review of the Flightfox website and application

Flightfox is a website which supports crowd-sourced research of airfares and flight connections.  The idea is that, let’s say, you are flying from New York to Phoenix, and the airline quotes you a round trip airfare of $1000.  You think that’s a bit much, but you don’t really have time to research it, so you go on Flightfox and ask for help.  For a fee, which the website says starts at $24, some travel experts will research ways to save you money.  You choose the expert you like best, and work with that person to book your trip.

It sounds like it is a good idea.  I was not happy with the result.

We were planning a trip to take a tour (Rick Steves Adriatic tour) that originates in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and ends two weeks later in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  I found that getting to Ljubljana was not terribly hard.  It takes about 14 hours and you have to make multiple connections, but it looks doable.  But the return, from Dubrovnik to Dallas/Ft. Worth, was really, really difficult.  The only way to get back the same day was to take a departure out of Dubrovnik at 6 AM (although it might be 7 by the time we were going).

The fares ranged from pretty expensive to obscenely expensive.  I contacted American Airlines, hoping to cut the expense by using some miles for part of the trip, and ended up with a quote of over $5000 per person for the round trip.  Using, I found fares in the $1200 to $1300 range, but the return trip from Dubrovnik was in nearly all cases going to require an overnight stay in London or another European city (or, worse, at an airport).  The idea was to come home on Saturday, and go to work on Monday.  The idea was not to come home on Sunday and go to work on Monday.  Nor was the idea to extend two weeks of vacation to two weeks and change.

So, I had just heard about Flightfox on the This Week inTravel podcast, and decided to try it.  (Caution, this website is never current with what they have in iTunes.)  They asked for a hell of a lot more than $24, though.  I went ahead, and described our trip for the experts.  I tried to emphasize that my problem was transit time rather than cost.

The ‘contest’ for my fee ran twenty-four hours.  I received only eight bids from only three contestants. Nobody did any better than I had for myself using or other travel engines.  They all focused on beating the price when I was concerned with the duration of the return trip combined with the extremely early departure required to get home in one day.  We ended up cancelling the Rick Steves tour.  A fourteen day tour is just not feasible for people who are working for a living.  We need to keep it to ten or twelve.

My conclusion is that Flightfox might be okay for someone who is not an experienced traveler, but for someone like me (nearly two million miles on American) it is a waste of time and money.  I could be one of their experts, I suppose.  But I still couldn't get you home from Dubrovnik.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fear and loathing 4

Most of the time I was working in Vermont, I was put up at the company’s guest house, a long ranch style house on the company’s campus.  It was within walking distance, although I didn't walk it, on account of the often life-threatening weather. The guest house was fairly Spartan, with rooms having a nice queen size bed, and a window out the back where you could see the woods, a hell of a lot of snow, and later, some nice green grass.  Also you could see the lady who came from somewhere in North Carolina every week who would be out there smoking.


The first time I was in the guest house was when I interviewed at the company. I had come in the night before and was left there by the company driver.  The room was on the main floor, and was kind of noisy, in that there was a heating/air conditioning unit which kept coming on.  The reason it kept coming on was that it was bitter cold out.  The room itself was quite warm, and the windows could not be opened – in fact there was a storm window in addition to the regular window.  The rooms all had a tiny circular table, and a couple of not very comfortable chairs.  There was a clock radio, a chest of drawers, a phone, a well equipped bathroom with travel-sized toiletries, including the smallest tube of toothpaste imaginable. 

Eventually I learned the trick of how to make the heat not come on.  But not for the first week or so, and you can’t use earplugs when you have to get up in the morning.  And I learned that the heat in the bathroom was enough to warm up the bedroom.

The guest house had a fancy breakfast, with pancakes or French toast, cereal, fruit, Vermont maple syrup, and so forth.   I would usually opt for an English muffin and some scrambled eggs, but eventually I taught one of the ladies how to poach eggs, so I could have those.  The breakfast was consistent, but the interesting part was who was there.  The company is such a difficult place to get to, that they routinely put up visitors overnight, and I ran into some very senior people from different companies.  Some of them were virulent in their comments about Vermont.

Lounge on the first floor. Never saw anyone use it.

When I returned for my first full week of work, I was put in a downstairs room.  There were half a dozen guest rooms off the hallway, and since these rooms were almost underground they temperature was better regulated.  The lower floor had a small kitchen, with a fridge and a microwave. There were cold drinks and ice available, and coffee making facilities.  There was a lounge with a TV – an old low definition television. I never used it.  Some old Naugahyde furniture completed the look.

The cookies in that jar were fabulous

Clubby, don't you think?

The problem I had in the guest house was sleeping.  At first, I had problems with the unusual noises, such as from the room heater.  Then I had problems because the smoke alarm in the hall was running low on its battery, and kept chirping.  I have experience with this!  I got out there, got that thing down, took out the battery, and left it lying on the floor.

The next night it was chirping again.  They had just put it back.  So this time, to make it a little easier for them, I put the battery in the trash.  And then complained at breakfast.  I had smoke alarm problems a couple of times.

Subsequently, I had problems with people who would set the alarm in their guest room for some ungodly hour, and then leave it set after they departed.  Guess who would have to get up and shut it off?

Another difficulty was, as it got to be spring, there were some wild animals around that made a lot of noise.  I couldn’t tell you what they were.  And the walls in the rooms were absolutely paper thin.  If they had permitted TV’s in there, it would have been a disaster.  I could hear the person in the next room’s phone conversations, and I could sometimes even hear them typing on their computer.

Guest rooms

Another amusement was that they had these tall light poles in the parking lot and all around the property, but not one of those lights worked.  I had a conversation with the manager of the guest house about it, and she just thought I hated Vermont.  I explained that I routinely got in at 10:30 or 11:00 PM on Sunday night and was tired of using my phone as a flashlight.  They eventually fixed all the lights. 

The saving grace about the guest house was that it had good, fast, free wi-fi.  I really appreciated that.