Recently I decided to take a closer look at the incessant entreaties and come-ons from Delta and American Express for the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Amex credit card.  As an American Express cardholder since 1976 with a regular Platinum Card in my wallet, I didn’t really think I could use a second Amex account.  But what the heck, I thought, I’ll do the analysis and see if it’s worth keeping the card for a year to earn the bonus miles.  Delta’s new restrictions on the transfer of Membership Miles prompted me in part to think about it, even though I won’t be subject to the 2015 cap (250,000 miles, but will it shrink in ensuing years?).

Frequent flyer games you can play

Thus, after reading through the materials and making some calculations, I indeed accepted Delta’s offer for a Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express Credit Card.  I liked the idea of 45,000 bonus miles after the first $1000 in purchases within the first three months, and double SkyMiles for Delta purchases, and a $100 one-time statement credit, for reasons that will become clear.

After receiving the new SkyMiles card, I made plans for next summer for a double-whammy trip to the states of Washington and Montana: to Washington to take our kids to see where my wife and I were married twenty years ago at Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park, and to Montana to make our annual trek to the beautiful Beartooth Mountains Wilderness Area to visit my wife’s parents.  I booked us on Delta all the way  I had already checked Kayak.com and several other air travel websites before deciding to get the Platinum SkyMiles Amex card.  All those sites were showing around $830 round trip for Raleigh-Seattle-Billings-Raleigh on every airline that flies to those cities.

I also checked SkyMiles seats, and awards were available for the lowest possible mileage, but that was 80,000 miles per ticket.  Despite being a Five Million Miler with Delta, I did not currently have 320,000 SkyMiles on account.  Doing the numbers, at the cheapest “free” seat category, the miles are worth $0.01 each.  At higher award seat categories, they are worth a good deal less than a penny a mile. $831 divided by 80,000 miles is indeed one cent per mile, so the frequent flyer seats would have been a relative bargain had I enough to qualify.

As it was, I charged all four tickets (for my wife, me, and our two kids) to the new SkyMiles Platinum American Express credit card, which will yield me 45,000 bonus Skymiles plus another 6,446 Skymiles because purchases on Delta count as two miles for every one dollar charged ($3223 X 2).  When we fly next summer, we will also earn another good chunk of miles, 6,274 SkyMiles per ticket, for a grand total of 76,542 SkyMiles for the four of us, all of which we can cash in later.  That took a little of the sting out of the annual fee for the new Amex card.  Here are the total frequent flyer mileages (SkyMiles) to be earned based on our itinerary:

RDU/LAX – 2237

LAX/SEA – 951

SEA/SLC – 690

SLC/BIL – 387

BIL/MSP – 746

MSP/ATL – 907

ATL/RDU – 356

TOTAL – 6,274 SkyMiles per ticket x 4 people flying = 25,096

GRAND TOTAL – $3,223 for four tickets x 2 SkyMiles credit per dollar charged = 6,446 + 45,000 bonus SkyMiles + 25,096 SkyMiles for actual miles flown = 76,542 miles

Not bad for the annual Skymiles Amex fee of $195–no, check that, for $95 after my $100 statement credit for getting the card.

Delta affirms that miles are worth a penny each

This exercise also made me rethink how Delta values each SkyMile these days.  Almost fifteen years ago I came up with a business plan which I called IDEALMILES.COM (a play on the words “I deal miles”) that would allow frequent flyers to sell their miles, or to buy frequent flyer awards based on miles, through an airline-sanctioned online clearing house.  Without going into a lot of detail, the scheme would have allowed airlines to harvest at least a penny a mile by acting as the intermediary.  I first pitched the idea to Delta.  Here is one slide in a presentation I put together in 2000:

IDEALMILES

It was too controversial at the time, and no airline expressed sufficient interest for the business to take off.  Airline CFOs were struggling with how to value the billions of miles carried on their books.  The following year’s effect of 9/11 on the commercial aviation industry put IDEALMILES to rest once and for all.

When I was hawking my scheme to airline execs, they were coy about the retail value they placed on each mile, so I was intrigued to find that Delta’s website now allows the use of up to 55,000 Skymiles per ticket to be used to pay for part of airfares, and that those miles are valued at a penny per mile (55,000 miles discounts an airfare by $550).  You can see how that works in this screenshot:

Delta mileage screenprint

So it looks like I had it right in 2000 when I offered Delta one cent per mile.  It just took awhile for them to do it their way.

By now I am pretty sure that everybody on earth with a computer has read Derek Low’s well-done blog post detailing, in words and great pictures, his flying experience in Singapore Airlines’ over-the-top “Suites Class” ($23,000 one way) on the A380 whale plane from Singapore to New York.  Okay, there are a lot of selfies, but you have to admit that Mr. Low did an outstanding job of describing the flight from the outrageously decadent “Private Room” lounge on the ground to the accoutrements of the luxury “Suites” toilet in the air.  If you haven’t read about it, click here.

DCIM100GOPROthe private room

I’m not flying these days nearly as often as I used to, but I can relate to Mr. Low’s zest for trying the experience.  When I was pulling down a tidy annual sum and my clients were springing for international business class for me to fly overseas, I’d often pay the difference out of my pocket to experience international first class, or use miles for the difference, or wangle the budgeted money for business into a first class fare class that was as cheap (like Around The World First Class deals). Several times I was able to fly around the world in First Class for $5024, including taxes.  At one time I kept count of the number of times I’d circled the globe, but I used those ATW fare deals on so many airlines so many times that I lost count.

Someone asked me if I was jealous about his burning frequent flyer points on this trip, and I laughed.  I’d have done the same thing exactly!  My hat’s off to him for taking the plunge and to Singapore for creating a super first class experience.  This is especially encouraging in an era when real First Class has mostly sunk out of sight in favor of Business Class.

Today’s international Business Class is not the same experience as international First Class used to be, at least not to me. Sure, the seats lie flat now, which they didn’t used to, and that’s a plus, but the service in general has declined.  The luxe factor is gone, except on the few routes and airlines that Joe Brancatelli wrote about here back in July.  Not so long ago, international First Class was famously dubbed “flying sharp end” by author Martin Amis in his book Money because First Class cabins were always up front (literally in the nose of 747s).  There was a mystique and a glamour about flying First Class overseas that never translated to C Class (Business).  So I really enjoyed reading about the SQ Suites Class because it made me recall memorable flights that offered true luxury like the Concorde.

concorde in flight

I flew three segments on the BA Concorde, which technically trumps everything else, past or present.  Seeing the curvature of the earth from 60,000 feet above sea level while scooting along at Mach 2+ (1350 MPH cruising speed) and sipping a glass of Krug Champagne or a fine vintage Bordeaux is hard to beat. The “mach meter” installed in each cabin was famous:

Mach 2 60000 ft cabin sign

The Concorde Lounges at JFK and Heathrow were as sumptuous in their day as The Private Room, though they did not aim for the feel of a London Men’s Club.  The Concorde Lounge atmosphere was designed to be a bit more convivial, though if privacy was what you wanted, Concorde passengers were discreet and polite.  Nobody would bother you.

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The interior of the Concorde was small because the airplane was designed to fly at twice the speed of sound.  The plane held only 100 passengers in a  2-2 seat configuration, all first class, of course, in two cabins.  My first impression of the classy gray leather seats was of a fancy DC-9 that had been outfitted with all First Class seats.  The seat pitch, however, was more than adequate, and the seats were quite comfortable.  Since the Concorde was all about speed (3.5 hours London to New York), seat comfort and lots of space were not as important as on relatively slow conventional aircraft like the A380. I never heard anyone complain of Concorde seats or space.

Cabin interior

But those three and a half hours were unforgettable.  After the thrilling acceleration and steep takeoff climb, drinks were refreshed and meal orders taken. Concorde service was impeccable, classy, refined, and delicious. From the Royal Doulton crystal designed solely for Concorde service to the endless supply of fine Champagnes and wines to fill them with and serving the freshest comestibles, Concorde was as special in fact as its hype.

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Here are two of the Royal Doulton glasses the crew of my last BA Concorde gave me when I deplaned because I had admired them so much, along with some of the other memorabilia British Airways Concorde crews piled on me:

20141014_134436   20141014_134534

The sleek, futuristic Concorde design is timeless.  It looked then and still looks now like something out of a science fiction movie.  No commercial aircraft has ever been so beautiful to look at.  Its nose even pivoted for landing:

concorde landing

The Concorde was the pinnacle of flying of its day (retired in 2003), just as Singapore’s Suites Class on its A380s is now.  I’ve had friends express surprise, even resentment, that people would be so foolish as to fork over $23,000 for such an ephemeral experience. In today’s troubled and uncertain economic times, with the Middle Class (that’d be me) squeezed as never before, it does seem like an unnecessary extravagance.   But sheepishly I admit, though I may not have the wherewithal any more to see what that’s like, I enjoyed sharing it vicariously with Mr. Low.  Good on him for boldly doing it.

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I’ve never been accused of licking the boot of any airline executive.  Anyway, that would be highly problematic to effect, as the natural position of their boot is planted firmly against the back of my neck as I lie prostrate on some distant airport floor watching my connection leave without me or reading the dreaded word “CANCELED” in bold red font next to my flight’s status on the airport information board. Figuratively speaking, of course.  Point is, I have come to expect things to go wrong when I enter the airport netherworld, and I am usually right, unfortunately.  So when everything goes right, I get nervous.

On my last two itineraries, one RDU to the Twin Cities and the other Raleigh to Manchester, New Hampshire, everything DID go right!  And fair is fair: I have to give Delta Airlines credit where it’s due.  Especially since all six flight segments were on RJs, and the New Hampshire trip was a connection through, gulp, LAGUARDIA!

Should I nitpick? Let’s see, well, all flights were on time except for my return connection at LGA (Manchester (MHT)/LGA/RDU).  The LaGuardia to Raleigh flight was reported to be north of two hours late and worsening when I received two notices by text about the delays.  Yet when I arrived at MHT Airport and asked the Delta gate agent whether I might catch different connections (a practice I perfected decades ago), he swiftly hit a few keys on his computer and produced a taxi voucher Manchester to Boston Logan and a boarding pass on a nonstop flight BOS/RDU that put me in earlier than my connection would have had it been on time.  It’s hard to beat that service, and the friendly, competent Delta agents made the slight bump easy to bear.

I am no fan of regional jets, but the flights to MSP were comfortable CRJ700 and CRJ900 airplanes, and sparkling clean.  The cockpit and cabin crews were cordial and efficient, and with schedules being met, it was a virtually painless, even enjoyable experience.  Imagine that!  I am marveling at the memory as I write these words.

Ditto for the flight connection through LGA.  Even Delta’s LaGuardia terminal was clean and neat (unlike a recent trip through part of their JFK complex).  Both flight crews (RDU/LGA and LGA/MHT) were as friendly and efficient as the MSP flight crews had been, and the planes just as clean.  The on-time operation was even more surprising given the low ceiling and a steady rain.  Here’s a shot of the sea of taxis at LGA that I took from the Delta SkyClub window:

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Delta even provided me with free drink coupons on all flights, too, in case my upgrades didn’t come through:

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But I didn’t have to use the coupons because, well, the cherry on top of this experience was that I was upgraded on every flight, save the LGA/MHT leg, which was an all-coach ERJ.

I wracked my brain trying to think of something that didn’t go right on these flights.  I feel especially bad that they were remarkably normal because of the pervasive flying misery being meted out in Chicago concurrent with my itineraries.   The only complaint I have is that this ISN’T the norm. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

New Hampshire was gorgeous, by the way, with the autumn leaves nearing their peak colors:

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This is about the Chinese water torture I experienced at the massive Hyatt Regency Minneapolis when I arrived for a transit conference so important that it also drew the attendance of the Secretary of Transportation.

20140923_082721-Rail-Volution Anthony Foxx

U. S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx

Despite being checked in online before arrival in response to an email the hotel itself sent to me just before I left, the kiosk’s software couldn’t find me. I was forced to stand and wait in a long line for a front desk clerk.  Because of the conference check-ins, the line moved slowly, giving me plenty of time to mentally condemn their malfunctioning system.  Why even bother to email an online check-in option if it didn’t work on arrival?  When my turn finally came, I was given the key to room 4111.

I have to give credit where it’s due to the Hyatt for encouraging physical fitness in its guests. After taking a gander at my portly dimensions on arrival, I assume they decided an exercise regimen wouldn’t hurt, and thus they assigned me to room 4111, one room shy of being the most distant from the elevator. Here’s a view of just one of the several halls in the rat’s maze of corridors on the fourth floor required to reach 4111:

20140920_182309-Hyatt Minneapolis room 4111, the LOOOOONG 152 step walk

Key in hand, I began my walk from the elevator.  At first I thought I had taken a wrong turn because I kept going and going and going, but the signs kept showing room 4111 around the next corner.  And then the one after that, and so on.  When I finally arrived, I assumed that I must have read the signs incorrectly in the lift lobby and that surely I had traveled in a circle and was almost back to where I started.  A quick look to the end of the hall, just one room away, however, proved me wrong.  It was really the dead end of a very long series of corridors.

Later I counted the number of steps to and from the elevator: 152 steps, which for my stride is 340 feet, longer than a football field.  In sixty years of staying in hotels I don’t recall ever having a room so far from the elevators.  Though the hotel was planted firmly in downtown Minneapolis at one end of the Nicollet Mall, it’s possible that my room was actually located in a St. Paul zip code.  Every trip to my room required a good deal of extra time.  The Millennium Hotel across the street, which served as the overflow property for the conference, was a closer walk than from the one to my room.

My room faced Nicollet Street, and when I took a better look at the hotel from the outside, I understood why the room was so distant from the elevators.  The property’s architects wrapped extra rooms around the front of the hotel up to the fourth floor with meeting and conference rooms built on the opposite side of the corridor of rooms where 4111 is located.  But in order for guests to actually reach those rooms required trekking down a tortuous series of corridors that snaked from the main tower around the edge of the building to the front. You can see this front wrap of rooms on the second, third, and fourth floors jutting out from the hotel in this photo, along with the great majority of rooms in the distant tower:

20140921_091348-Hyatt Minneapolis landscape view

At the door I was happy to find Hyatt had converted the keys to the RFID type.  I had only to touch my card key to the sensor on the door to open it.  The room itself was spacious and unpretentious, and the soundproofing seemed at first to be pretty good. I could still clearly hear TVs, talking, and toilets flushing above, below, and next to me, albeit reasonably distant.  The HVAC system was whisper-quiet and held the temp dead steady.  Maybe if it had been at least slightly audible, it would have drowned out the dim but irritating noise leaking in around me from other rooms.  The hotel provided strong and free wifi, which happily surprised me.  Here’s a view of the room and bed:

20140920_182842--Hyatt Minneapolis room 4111 view to window20140920_182810-Hyatt Minneapolis room 4111 bed

The bathroom was well-lit, but the room not so much.  The glass-enclosed shower with a rain-shower head was roomy, but with so-so water pressure that required extra rinse time (I have always wondered why water-saver shower heads are thought to be more efficient, since, for me at least, they require lots of extra time soaping up and rinsing off, which surely uses the same quantity, or even more, water than a normal shower head).

My first impression of the furniture changed after actually sitting on the couch and two chairs.  All three were terribly uncomfortable.  The couch turned out to be a fold-out hide-a-bed, and of course they are never comfortable to sit on (or to sleep on).  The cheap desk chair with no arms was reminiscent of a piece of dorm furniture.  The other chair looked good but didn’t sit well.  Here’s a closeup of the desk chair, sofa, and chair:

20140924_112515-Hyatt Minneapolis room 4111 furniture

For all this convenience, comfort, luxe, and grandeur, I was enjoying the Hyatt’s special discounted conference rate, which came to $214.33 per night, all in. I thought it was pretty steep for a conference that filled the entire hotel and the Millennium across the street, not to mention the extra revenue from the many banquet and conference rooms booked.  Well, at least the Hyatt bundled wifi in the rate.

After turning off the light to sleep on the first two nights I noticed what I thought was noise from adjacent rooms, but It sounded like people arguing.  On the third night the same noises awakened me at midnight because they were much louder than on previous nights.  Trying to locate the source, I walked around the room, finally narrowing it down to the window.  Opening the curtains, I looked down four floors onto Nicollet Street to see 15-20 shabbily-dressed men yelling and screaming at each other.  Several were facing off out in the middle of Nicollet Street and almost nose to nose with each other, pointing fingers and cursing.  Their words drifted clearly up to me, and I had a drone’s eye view of the action, but I could not tell how old they were or any detail other than their clothing.  The word “mother” peppered their rich vernacular.  They all acted as if they’d been drinking heavily, as they meandered all over the sidewalk and street beneath me.

I called the front desk to complain.  The fellow who answered was shocked and didn’t seem at first to believe me, but after I insisted several times that I wasn’t crazy or drunk, he went outside to investigate.  The sight of so many, obviously belligerent men milling around just outside his door made him quickly retreat and call the police.  However, despite my several more calls to him over the following hour, the police never showed up.  Remember this is the Hyatt in downtown Minneapolis, but the police never responded to the hotel’s call, at least not as of 1:10 AM.

Just past one in the morning the group slowly broke up, with individuals drifting off in several directions, after which I was able to fall asleep again.  No thanks to the hotel or the Minneapolis Police Department.  I remember thinking I was glad not to be down on the street with that crowd.  My sleep that night was fitful; I kept waking up, dreaming that the noise below my room had returned.

The next morning I asked for, and received, a private conference with a manager on duty to complain about the incident and the way it wasn’t handled.  She waffled on why the night manager had not been more forceful in getting the police to respond.  She apologized to me, and we parted.  Later I found a gift waiting for me in the room: not a bottle of wine and a fruit basket, but one small plate with one apple, one peach, one banana, some grapes, and two small bottles of water.  Next to it was a pre-printed, unsigned note of apology from the hotel for “our service shortcomings..”  All shown here:

20140923_181331-Hyatt Minneapolis room 4111 my gift

I did appreciate the fruit and the gesture.  Truth be told, however, and I feel somewhat conflicted admitting this because it sounds a bit ungracious, I would have appreciated just a short handwritten note, or at least a quick personal signature on the generic apology card, much more than even one bottle of water.

In most other respects, the Hyatt was like most Hyatts: expensive, well-maintained, boasting a youthful staff bursting with over-achieving cheerfulness, though missing the style and panache of public areas once so characteristic of the Hyatt brand.  Here’s a view of the unimaginative lobby from the second floor:

20140924_103458-Hyatt Minneapolis lobby

I was glad to check out and won’t miss the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, though I have to admit that my legs feel stronger from all those 152 step walks to my room. I believe that I might have even lost a couple of pounds.  Perhaps I should jot a note of thanks to their management!

To avoid ruffling feathers, I’ll ask readers up front to please pay attention to the title of this post. It says what I want. I am speaking for me, not for any other business traveler. I understand that everyone has her or his own set of expectations and desires from flying. These are mine, and mine alone.

In my post before this one, I expressed disdain for United throwing a tiny bone to their most loyal customers by slight catering improvements. To me it was tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: When the ship is sinking, why worry about serving smoked salmon canapes? If I can’t count on a reliable operation, I’m more likely to experience indigestion than enjoyment from consuming a few crumbs on a flight three hours late. It’s personally insulting when any company attempts to placate me with frivolous frills when it can’t consistently deliver its primary product, its raison d’être. After all, airline core competency is getting us from point A to point B on the schedule they themselves publish and advertise. No one makes them offer airplanes for public transport, and no agency forces them to adhere to a certain schedule. So when an airline like UA consistently fails–for years and years, mind you, not merely for a short while–to keep to its own self-imposed schedules, then I deem it unworthy of my business or respect.

I realize others may feel differently. In fact years ago I probably would have agreed with the fellow who posted that United had been so stingy with meal service and perks recently that this news of better catering was a big morale-booster for the top flyers. As the decades have worn on, though, I have returned to a set of basic expectations that don’t include on-board service.

The airlines themselves seem to see things from a different perspective. For example, they obsess a lot about branding, as if the logos and colors on their airplanes and advertisements were as important in attracting customers as an on-time operation. Joe Brancatelli recently Tweeted that “No one cares about branding crap EXCEPT the airlines doing it. Passengers look at fares, perks, and treatment they get, not livery.” I agreed, but added in a reply that we also pay attention to schedule reliability, especially if connecting through a hub, a constant worry for those of us living in second and third tier cities with little direct service. When I can get point-to-point flights, schedule reliability is less important to me because I don’t have to worry about making that connecting flight. But I still expect to get where I’m going not more than an hour or two later than the published schedule.

My friend Judy from Hawai’i put her principal desire even more succinctly in a reply to my last post: “Just give me a comfortable seat,” she said. Yes, indeed! I’d probably qualify that to say comfortable and with a modicum of space between me and the passengers in front and behind me and beside me.

So what do I want now after more than fifty years of flying? I can’t recall ever rank-ordering my expectations, but here they are:

1. Safety – I want to stay alive and arrive at my destination, vertical and ambulatory, in one piece.

2. Schedule reliability – I want to be able to count on my airlines adhering to their published schedules, including connections.

3. Comfortable, moderately reclining seat with sufficient private space side-to-side and front-to-back such that fights don’t break out, as are now occurring on some planes – What are those exact dimensions? I don’t know, but we have not had this problem until recently as airlines have crammed more seats onto their planes than ever before. Experts like Joe Brancatelli and David Rowell can provide dimensional guidelines that have historically worked. We all know they are needed to maintain civility. As Joe recently pointed out, there are veterinary standards in place for transporting four-legged beasts. Humane standards of travel need to be adopted for us bipeds, too.

4. Reasonable, affordable fares, whatever that means – “Reasonable” and “affordable” mean different things to different people, but I think we are all feeling gouged generally these days. That said, this is a function of market demand and seat supply. Airlines are in the business of making money and have finally learned how to restrict supply to control prices. As a believer in free markets, I do not favor government intervention, but I sure hope the market reacts with falling demand soon to bring prices down.

5. Early boarding – Oh, yes, I want to be rewarded for my millions of miles of flying with certain carriers, and I am, but the principal benefit they offer me is this one: I get to board right after First Class. That way I can get to my seat ahead of the crowds, ensure there is overhead space for my carry-on, and get my mind settled into a Zen attitude before the madhouse of general boarding engulfs me inside the narrow aluminum tube.

6. Free checked bags – Another perk from a lifetime of accumulating miles, and never more important than now as airlines are making billions from these extra fees, which are, of course, likely to rise, and rise, and rise. Hopefully, however, not for me.

7. Other Perks – I get access (sometimes gratis, sometimes at a reduced cost) to roomier coach seats, the occasional upgrade to domestic first class (once common, but very rare these days–and never on international flights), the odd free drink or snack, and sometimes a smile and thank-you from on-board crews. The roomier seat is by far the most important of these perks (see number 3. above), but the courtesy of thanks is a nice personal touch which I always remember.

8. Checked luggage recovery – Often under-appreciated as an aspect of airline service, but very important. I expect airlines to get my checked bags on the carousel within 20 minutes of gate arrival.

9. Cleanliness – I expect airplanes to be reasonably well-policed of trash and debris, and I expect surfaces to be wiped down with disinfectant between flights to prevent disease transmission .

If my airline does those things right, I just don’t care if they don’t serve me a meal or if their airplanes have different logos or color schemes. After all, for decades airlines offered daily newspapers and magazines on board in both classes, and who misses those? It was a nice touch, but not essential to their core business (though newspapers are still provided on most international flights in premium classes).

I got a good belly laugh when reading that UA is improving its first class food on domestic flights (see http://online.wsj.com/articles/united-airlines-to-serve-up-improved-food-on-domestic-first-class-flights-1408629602).

This absurd decision by the airline’s so-called “management” is hubris with a capital “H”. Most business flyers loyal to United would beg the airline to spend its money making right its operation and drastically improving its schedule reliability ahead of serving a few more chilled sandwiches or pouring mediocre Prosecco.

My son, at age fifteen and a half, has shown himself for six months on a Learner’s Permit to be a safe and careful driver. That’s mostly around Raleigh, naturally, with few opportunities to get a feel for the open road.

Like me, he is also a jazz fan (though, unlike me, he is extremely proficient on two musical instruments, piano and trumpet). So it was a no-brainer that the two of us would drive rather than fly when we decided to visit friends in New Orleans. While there we would attend the Satchmo Summer Fest at the end of July honoring the jazz legacy of NOLA native son Louis Armstrong. Seemed like a fine package: lots of miles on my son’s driving log, see six or seven states at ground level for a change, hear a lot of great music, catch up with some good friends, eat some fine food, and just chill.

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In theory that would give my son 900 miles of Interstate driving experience between Raleigh and the Crescent City, and another 900 home. But yikes! That seemed like a long way to drive. The only real anxiety I harbored was the necessity to traverse Atlanta. Going through Atlanta, with its horrid congestion, cannot be avoided, just as traveling north from Raleigh to the Northeast cannot avoid going through the D.C. metro nightmare.

We set off at midday from Raleigh, starting late owing to a business meeting I was part of until noon, and I calculated we would reach Atlanta around 6:00 PM, the middle of rush hour. Thus going via I-85 was out, because that would necessitate piercing the city north to south at the worst possible evening hour.

Instead, I directed my son to take a slight detour east on I-40 to I-95 south, then I-20 west from Florence, South Carolina in order to attack a mere 14 miles of the SE corner of the I-285 beltline around Atlanta. I steeled myself to suffer the stop-and-go traffic there.

My son did the preponderance of wheel time, and to my astonishment, speeds around that corner of the Atlanta beltway stayed above 50 MPH. South of Atlanta on I-85 we maintained 70 MPH (the posted limit) without trouble and crossed the Chattahoochee River into Alabama by 7:15 PM Eastern (close, but still not in the Central time zone).

In the small town of Lanett, Alabama we stopped to refuel and grab a bite. I spied a Days Inn by the Interstate exit and decided to ask about their rates. $50 including tax for a nonsmoking room with two double beds, I was told. Did they take AARP or AAA cards? I asked. Nope, one rate: $50, including tax, for any room.

I plunked down the money, and we slept soundly that night. The room was clean, quiet, roomy, beds were comfy, good cable TV variety, and the A/C worked well. Okay, the shower pressure was pathetic, but we managed. Nowhere I know of in Raleigh where one can find a room like that for fifty bucks, all in.

Next morning we arose very early and drove across the exit to a Waffle House for–what else?–waffles. Delicious, cheap, and the waitresses all called us “honey.” After leaving and passing through Montgomery to reach I-65 south to I-10, my son asked if we could make a 10 mile detour to Florida since it was so close. He wanted to be able to tell his friends that he’d driven in seven states instead of six (NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, and LA). I accommodated him by navigating off I-65 at Atmore, Alabama to reach the Florida panhandle, and we were soon barreling along I-10 west crossing one bayou after another.

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By 1:30 PM we were in New Orleans, well, actually in Harahan, on the Mississippi River levy where some of our friends live. 920 miles from Raleigh, a bit longer than it might have been had we stuck to the more direct I-85 route, but anything to avoid downtown Atlanta.

Enjoying Champagne at Bayona

Over the next few days we dined twice at Bayona in the Quarter (thank you, Susan Spicer, master chef!) and listened to fine jazz performers like Don Vappie and his Creole Jazz Serenaders playing a set on the outdoor stage and Ellis Marsalis performing at Snug Harbor. Early Saturday morning came too quickly, but we were on the road for Raleigh by 6:15 AM Central.

Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenaders

Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenaders

Thirteen hours later we pulled into our driveway at 9:15 PM Eastern. We had driven 861 miles straight through from New Orleans, averaging 66 MPH, stopping only for gasoline, toilet breaks, and food. We mostly set the cruise control at 66 or 71, 1 MPH over the speed limit. Most of the way was at 70 MPH. It was a Saturday, and we lucked out with light traffic everywhere. Never happens over such a long drive, but it did that day. My son came home with 1914 total miles on his log (counting the local mileage in New Orleans while there).

The "Peachoid" in Gaffney, SC.   Frank Underwood, where are you?

The “Peachoid” in Gaffney, SC. Frank Underwood, where are you?

Total gas cost was $281, plus $50 for the one hotel night, equals $331 in direct costs. I didn’t count food because we had to eat whether we flew or drove. Flying would have been over $1000 for the two of us plus parking at RDU airport for six days at $14/day.

The most enjoyable elements of the road trip were time spent alone with my son and seeing the countryside close up. There’s something about covering the earth at ground level that doesn’t leave gaps in my psyche like flying over at 33,000 feet does. There’s a continuity of place, from home to destination and back, on the road that just feels right. It’s impossible, and frankly undesirable, to make trips like this one every time. But once in awhile it is good for the soul.

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