Okay, I admit that all travel is selfish.

Nonetheless, I am shamelessly disappointed that I can’t find “reasonable” fares to Europe over Easter. Not even with five days of flexibility to work with. Why not?  Principally because my travel dates are siloed in Easter week, one of the most expensive holiday periods of the year, and so my search for a “reasonable” airfare to Europe came up with zilch.

Mine is an especially selfish admission, given that current airfares to Europe from major gateways like NYC, ORD, IAD, and BOS are reportedly the cheapest in decades, that is, as long as you have a lot of date flexibility, and as long as you live near one of those major gateway airports.

But with a high schooler still at home I remain a slave to the tyranny of the school calendar and have no such flexibility.  Our daughter has a Spring Break which coincides with Easter, and only within those beginning and ending dates can I plan family vacation travel.

Living in Raleigh, not a big gateway city, also narrows my chances of finding bargain fares, even with two direct flights RDU to Europe every day (to LHR and CDG).

Then there’s my “bad timing” problem:  We aimed to fly to Munich in order to get connecting trains to Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary, but Air Berlin is defunct as of this week, and that’s impacting fares to Europe, particularly to and from Deutschland. Lufthansa and other carriers serving Germany are ecstatic and have jacked up fares. Of course that may not last, but it is a present factor.

Oh, and while I am blabbering guilt, one more thing: My definition of what is a “reasonable” round trip fare from RDU to Munich is entirely subjective and therefore also selfish:  a thousand bucks, more or less, seems like a fair amount to visit the Old Country again.

I mean, who doesn’t love Europe?  I fell for the Continent’s uncountable charms way back in 1973 the first time I winged across the Atlantic. My journey began from JFK on a Sabena World Airways 747.  The flight landed in Brussels during the magnificent fury of a northern European storm.  I recall nervously taking note of the exits as we descended through the extremely low ceiling, tossing and turning wildly in the wind, mentally calculating how fast I could bound from my aisle seat to the door should the big plane smack down hard on the ground, as I thought likely.

The Sabena pilot masterfully landed the jumbo jet perfectly centered on the runway, if a bit hard, leaving me with an indelible memory of my welcome to the Continent.  I’ve been hooked on Europe ever since.  In later years I had the great good fortune to work in Western Europe and England over a series of years, and I have gone back frequently ever since to visit friends, family, and favorite places.  I’ve always been able to find fares from RDU that didn’t break the bank.

Until now. My definition of a reasonable fare—at or under $1,000 in coach, or frequent flyer awards at or under 60,000 miles—eludes me for a trip in late March to early April, 2018. Forty-three years after my first trip, airfares to Europe hover in the $1,400-1,700 round trip range during the Easter period when I selfishly want to go.

And that’s not even for premium economy. PE fares are kissing $2,000. Taking my wife and daughter would cost $4,500-6,000 just to fly 4,500 miles to Munich from Raleigh.  By comparison, we are flying 6,603 miles to Rarotonga (Cook Islands, in the far South Pacific) at Christmas for the same $2,000 per ticket in premium economy, and Qatar and Emirates have ongoing sales which include fares of only $1,100 in coach to fly 9,023 miles to Bangkok and even less for the 8,051 miles to Johannesburg.

As I said, we do have some date flexibility even during the busy Easter holiday period, and I searched every combination within five days either side of our optimal dates.  No joy.  Everything is $1,400-1,700 for itineraries of 12-15 hours.

Online searches sometimes yield slightly cheaper fares (to as low as $937-1,132), but those itineraries involve 22-36 hour travel durations with overnights between connections in both directions.  An example is using Turkish Air to Istanbul and then backtracking to Munich with overnight connections.

Even American Airlines shows long itineraries requiring overnight connections (e.g., through LHR going, and PHL returning) for its cheapest Easter fares. The overall times for such flight combinations require nearly two days in each direction, cutting almost four days off a seven-day trip.  Which is, of course, ridiculous.  Searches on Delta.com failed to yield any better results.

The same disparities in trip times showed up in award travel searches on American and Delta.  AAdvantage requires a minimum of 30,000 miles one way—60,000 round trip—for award travel to most places in Europe in March and April.  I found plenty of options at the 30,000 mile one way level for three of us, but they all required overnight stays or long connections, making the itineraries 20-30 hours rather than the usual 12-14 hours.

However, checking for just one award ticket, the AA.com site would show a reasonable connection on some days over Easter with a total of about 15 hours travel time origin to destination.  Trying the same dates for two award tickets reverted to the very long trip times.  So I put one such single person award on hold, and then tried again on AA.com for an identical award travel itinerary.  I was successful in booking the second award ticket.  I infer from this experience that AA won’t allow more than one award ticket per reasonable itinerary, but I fail to comprehend the logic of such a prohibition.

Perhaps the airline wishes to discourage award travel by not making it easy for families to fly together on reasonably-timed itineraries.  But I suspect they would say the software logic that blocks more than one award seat on flights keeps award seats open to more would-be travelers.  If so, the unintended consequence is to encourage single travelers at the expense of couples and families.

I even phoned AA’s elite line and asked for help booking award seats in my flexible date range over Easter RDU/MUC.  I lucked out with a wonderful agent who was committed to find three seats for me, no matter what it took.  Loved her spirit!  However, after spending 40 minutes looking at every possible combination of partner airlines and possible connecting cities (e.g., Berlin, Madrid, London, Helsinki), the American agent couldn’t make anything work.

One insight gained from that long call was that AA’s best RDU/MUC connection was through Philadelphia in both directions, but the Airbus widebody used on the best PHL/MUC flights had zero award seats available, despite being nearly empty of bookings almost six months in advance.  I had wondered why that preferred connection showed up when I looked at paid tickets on AA.com, but never showed when looking online for AAdvantage award seats, not even for one person.

As a courtesy to me, my business travel agent (Steve Crandell, owner of Discount Travel in JAX) also spent a good deal of time looking for my definition of “reasonable” fares (about $1,000 each round trip RDU/MUC).  Nada during Easter.  Perhaps there will be a fare sale for travel in March-April, he said, but nothing announced so far, confirming that what I saw online is also what travel agents see.

Well, it is over a big holiday period; it is from a non-gateway city; and I am looking for flights to a German city just when a lot of capacity has vanished (Air Berlin).  After striking out entirely, our family gave up on Europe this time and decided instead to fly to Bangkok on Qatar Airways in March and April for a total of $3,300 round trip for three tickets.  We will have a grand time there and north up in Chiang Rai.

But of course I will never be finished with Europe. Stubbornly clinging to my selfish definition of a “reasonable” airfare limit to Europe, and with so many other headwinds, I simply chose a more cost-effective destination for this particular trip.

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On a recent four-flight Delta Airlines itinerary RDU to Denver for the annual Rail-Volution transit conference, I opted to upgrade all the way.  It was a suit-and-tie business trip that also required traveling with my laptop, and I didn’t feel like schlepping a heavy roller bag plus my thick laptop bag four times back into the no-man’s-land of coach.  Relief from pain and stress, I thought, awaited me, with the certainty that I’d board first (well, after those needing “extra time”) and be comfortably seated and treated.

My expectations weren’t shattered, but I noticed for the first time in several years that Delta’s service was a bit wobbly.  Maybe I’ve been lucky, but it seems to me that Delta has done a reasonably good job since swallowing Northwest being on time and providing uniform service on the ground and in the aluminum tube. Knowing what to expect is important for my karma when flying.

I admit to being hyper-sensitive to small variances in the execution of any form of service after a 39 year career spent driving out inconsistencies from manufacturing and service processes while consulting for more than 100 clients, all Fortune 500 companies. Not to mention millions of miles in the air to get to their workplaces all over creation.

RDU/ATL

The RDU Sky Club was busy for a Saturday morning. I moseyed on down to the gate 45 minutes before flight time to be sure I was among the first in line.  Even in First Class, my bulkhead 1B seat meant I’d have to find overhead space for both my bags, and boarding first meant I’d get first dibs on that storage.

We boarded the MD90 on time (35 minutes before scheduled departure). Even with the usual full flight, plenty of time to get situated and to enjoy a pre-flight beverage in First Class.

When I checked the overhead compartment immediately above my seat, I was none too pleased to find a flight attendant had shoved her suitcase there, taking valuable space, but I still got my two bags stowed quickly on the other side of the aisle and sat quickly to allow others to board, my suit coat in hand.

The two Delta flight attendants up front had not greeted me or met my eye on boarding, but now I strained to get their attention to take my coat.  And to place a drink order.

Didn’t happen.  They were too busy chatting and acting silly with the cockpit crew, with the result that the entire First Class cabin was completely ignored until five minutes before departure. I had to gesticulate wildly to get my suit coat hung up, and when my seatmate asked for a cocktail, he was smugly rebuffed that it was “too close to departure” to serve anything.

Of course the young flight attendants had dawdled for a half hour doing nothing up to that moment, so their excuse for no service was an obvious lie and was heard throughout the small premium cabin.  The people around me murmured unhappily that they couldn’t even get a Coke Zero.  My seatmate grumbled that he had paid for First Class and was disappointed.

The front cabin crew might as well have brought drinks around late, because the flight was 10 minutes behind schedule pushing back (no reason obvious or given). Nonetheless, we arrived at our B concourse gate in Atlanta on time.  The one hour flight was almost as forgettable to me as I am sure we customers all were to the indifferent, self-centered cabin crew.  I had to wave frantically again as we taxied to the gate to get an FA to retrieve my jacket, a service that flight attendants have always politely performed in first class without having to be asked.

I was disappointed to discover that the ATL B25 Sky Club—long ago the Eastern Airlines Ionosphere Club—is closed.  A giant new Sky Club above the center of B has replaced it and the chronically-overcrowded B10 club as well. The new club’s staff carried out their duties perfunctorily, maintaining perfect poker faces.  If the Delta Sky Club desk folks were enthusiastic, they did a wonderful job that Saturday concealing their gaiety.

As I exited the club later, I glanced at the five people working the desk again and noticed the same dead expressions. Not exactly the picture of welcome or “Come fly with us!” or “Thank you for paying oodles of money to our company.” I wondered if they had just been given pink slips.

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Delta ATL B-concourse Sky Club staff was a glum bunch

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Delta ATL B-concourse Sky Club

ATL/DEN

Walking to my departure gate for my flight to Denver, I noticed the new (to me) boarding pedestals at some ATL gates for boarding.  Looks like Delta’s endgame could be no-staff, all-electronic self-boarding at gates. (Joe Brancatelli said UA is testing them at CLE, and that he had joked about them on Twitter. Only an airline consider signs on poles an “improvement.”)

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New Delta pedestal self-boarding – note Premium pedestal standing alone near gate door

Once at my gate, I dutifully lined up behind the Premium pedestal to board like a good little boy, number four in the First Class queue, and worried that I hadn’t been quick enough to get there and might not find any overhead space again in First Class (another MD90, and another bulkhead 1B seat).  The pedestals are somehow demeaning and ridiculous to me, mimicking a similar arrangement used for years at Southwest.  I don’t like those, either.  The process is dehumanizing.

I was also bummed that the inbound flight was still “deplaning” (Is that a real word?) when I arrived at the gate because that often signals a delay, and I was even more put out after an announcement that our plane had a mechanical that would precipitate an indeterminate delay. We were invited to sit.

But even with a First Class boarding pass, I dared not sit down, else risk losing my pathetic fourth place in line. Confirmed in First Class, but still stressed; I chuckled to myself for foolishly feeling so pitiful. Wearing leather business shoes (my colleagues call them “Board room shoes”) that are not comfortable for long walks or standing indefinitely, I groaned, then grinned, and tried to read to wait out the problem.

We got lucky: just a half hour delay. It was never explained what was broken, which nagged at me a bit (I hoped the wings were still intact), but I was glad to be boarding.  The gate staff had cheerfully kept us informed of the (usual) creeping delay (ten minutes, then another ten, etc.), and the agents didn’t make any snarky PAs like, “Mechanics have arrived with duct tape, and we should be underway shortly.”

However, the first class folks ahead of me in line had crammed their luggage into my overhead space atop seat 1B just as I feared, forcing me to again use the bins on the opposite side of the aisle.  When an ancient couple toddled aboard to seats 1C and 1D with four big pieces to put away, they were incensed that I’d had the temerity to take “their” storage.  No flight attendant came to help, so I found room over seats behind them and apologized, not attempting an explanation that overhead space is strictly first come, first served. They would not have understood.

At least the ATL/DEN cabin crew was a hoot. The lead FA kept us in stitches with his funny and upbeat announcements, and he came through during the late boarding process to apologize to everyone in First Class that no pre-flight beverages would be offered on account of the tardy flight.  He promised, instead, double drinks once in the air, and he wasn’t joking about that! He did, though, immediately whisk away my coat and hang it up. Once above the clouds, we also got a nice meal, much to my surprise.  All in all, the simple but sincere humanity demonstrated by this cabin crew restored my sense of general good will toward Delta en route to Denver

DEN/ATL

Going home to Raleigh from Denver, though, I encountered more gate agents uninterested in answering questions, but they did board the plane on time 35 minutes before departure.  Stepping through the doorway of the aircraft, I encountered—but was not greeted by—another set of apathetic flight attendants working the front “premium” cabin.

Young and chatty, the two FAs at the boarding door acted like paying customers were invisible as we boarded, and they ignored the First Class compartment completely while on the ground, even though, as in Raleigh on my first flight, there was plenty of time to serve drinks.  Once again the cabin crew did not take my suit jacket until after the door was closed. One First Class class passenger had to take his coat to them to get it hung.

I kept thinking, Why did I waste upgrades to witness such indifferent service and bad attitudes? The two flight attendants were unfriendly and lazy. They jabbered together laughing instead of coming through the cabin, wearing their indolence like a chevron for all to see.

Once in the air, drinks came quickly and with a smile that none in First Class could have taken as genuine, replacing the complacent faces and inaction at the gate. But the cold mood toward that crew was already calcified among First Class patrons. I was glad to leave the plane in Atlanta, karma jangled.

ATL/RDU  

When I selected a First Class seat on the Atlanta to Raleigh flight online, I had been delighted to discover that this was the 757 that made up the relatively new Raleigh-Paris (CDG) nonstop.  This would mean I could try out (for the hour it takes to fly between Atlanta and Raleigh) the Delta One international business class seats on the single-aisle aircraft.  I was definitely curious to test seat comfort and cabin ambiance.

With a tight connection, I double-timed it to the departure gate, arriving mere minutes before boarding was due to start, only to find no aircraft at gate A11.  Immediately, I knew we’d be late, and thought this was odd, since the plane is on the ground less than 90 minutes at RDU before its scheduled departure to Charles de Gaulle. Looked like the RDU/CDG flight could be late as well, I thought.

The gate agent told me in a very upbeat manner that the aircraft was to be ferried over from the hangar and was due “any minute—no worries!”  She assured me our flight wouldn’t be late.  I knew she was either woefully ignorant or dissembling.  No matter, the effect was still the same: another chink in Delta service.

That particular agent was soon relieved by another woman possessed of a far more sour demeanor. She evidenced a great fondness for her P.A. microphone, making me think she might have been missed her calling as a late night boozy lounge singer. Again and again the agent repeated the news—plain as day to anyone who cared to look out the picture window behind her—that the plane was not there but soon would be.  “It’s almost here,” she dourly said, over and over.

But it wasn’t almost there. The plane was finally wheeled up over a half hour behind schedule, after which the cockpit and cabin crews had to be rounded up (they has wandered off from the gate) before boarding could commence.  The gate agent continued her squealing P.A. announcements, adoringly gasping the mike with both hands, as if she was about to belt out a tune.  I didn’t enjoy any of it, and my feet hurt as I stood (first in line this time) waiting to clamber on board.

First down the Jetway when at last boarding began, I turned left at the corner from the boarding door of the 757 in eager anticipation of experiencing the international business class cabin. But when it came into my field of view, a feeling of disharmony overwhelmed me.  The cabin’s over-sized sleeper seats in a 2-2 configuration were angled in toward the windows.  I flashed on a living room with far too much furniture. The atmosphere bordered on claustrophobic, and it was difficult to get down the narrow aisle and to get wedged into the seats. I had chosen 4A (window, back row), but as I shoved myself into it, I regretted it wasn’t an aisle, which would have been less confining than the window seats.  One plus: three windows on my side.

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Though late, the flight was comfortable and service okay. I couldn’t do much except sit in that tight space with the seat walls and dividers towering all around me, like being in a very narrow mountain valley.

Due to the crucial need to turn the aircraft to board for Paris soon after arrival, I expected a sense of urgency when our late flight reached the RDU gate, but once again, Delta surprised me with a glitch: no ramp guys to guide us in.  We waited another five minutes at RDU Gate C1 for ramp personnel, who weren’t moving too fast when they finally clustered in formation.  By then I knew the poor folks headed to Paris that day were going to be pretty late boarding, and I was happy to put my back to Delta for a while.

Perhaps I am being too picky.  But I do have fifty-seven years of flying behind me, and I have lived through the decline and steep fall of airlines like United.  I noticed the same small service faults occurring at those carriers before the plunge into service hell. I never expected Delta to be perfect (or any carrier), and I hope these experiences were just bad luck on my part.  But so many little things going wrong at once is not a good signal.

I was in Denver this past week for the annual Rail-Volution transit and land use conference, my fourth at this extremely valuable get-together of public transit planners and operators, urban land use specialists, and public mobility policy experts.  Preparing for my trip, naturally I made plans to get between the remote Denver airport and downtown using public transit.  In the past I have rented a car or used taxi and shared ride services for the same trip.

Halleluiah! I thought, as I planned.  No more expensive tollways in a rental car. That is, if the train actually worked.

It did.  I was delighted with my public transit train experience both arriving and departing.  In fact, I was astonished at how quick, convenient, and cheap it was to use the new train that connects DEN Airport to the city of Denver.

DIA, as it’s known to locals—DEN to you and me—was first studied in 1980-83, and the site 25 miles east-northeast of downtown Denver was initially funded in 1989.  After huge budget overruns—at $4.8 billion, almost two billion more than forecast—the gigantic new field opened twenty-two years ago (in early 1995) to replace venerable Stapleton Airport. This followed the debacle of its rogue luggage handling system, which famously chewed up some bags and sent others flying through the air.

DIA’s 33,500 acres make it the largest airport landowner in the country by a good margin.  Today’s six non-intersecting runways will eventually be expanded to twelve non-intersecting runways, and the airport will still have 17,000 acres remaining for expansion.  Now that’s good long-range planning for the future!

You’d think that spending nearly $5 billion and having the foresight to acquire enough land for 100 years of airport growth would have included a public transit link to get the long 25 miles into central Denver.  But no, nothing.

Finally, though, 21 years after opening, the airport has a commuter train operating to Denver Union Station.  Service began in April, 2016. Better late than never.

The University of Colorado A-Line train (naming rights were sold to UofC for five years at $1,000,000 per year) is operated by RTD (Regional Transportation District), the huge transit agency that handles all Denver-area public transportation.  The “A” in A-Line refers proudly to service to the airport.  In this political era of desert-like public infrastructure spending austerity, the project needed a layer-cake approach of P3 (Public-Private Partnership) funding to agglomerate the $2.3 billion total cost (or thereabouts—cost reports vary), which at $96 million per mile actually isn’t bad these days.

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The trains make the 24-mile journey between DIA and DUS (newly refurbished Denver Union Station in the heart of downtown) in 37 minutes at a reasonable fare of $9.00 (half that for seniors) departing in both directions every 15 minutes.  Convenient and cheap.  But reliable, safe, comfortable, doable?  The answer to all, with one or two minor glitches, is a resounding “yes.”

Here is my experience in minute detail from real-time notes I took.  Rereading this, I find it remarkable:

Left my room (879) at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel at 0531

Checked out of  Sheraton (the Rail-Volution conference hotel) at 0534

Arrived 16th St. Mallride stop at Court St across from the Sheraton at 0537

16th St. Mallride bus (free bus ride on 16th St. since 1982) picked up at Court St at 0541

16th St. Mallride bus arrived Wyndott St for walk to DUS (Denver Union Station) at 0550

Arrived DUS A-Line commuter train to airport platform at 0554

A-Line train departed DUS at 0600

A-Line train arrived DIA 2 mins. early at 0635

EXACTLY 58 MINS FROM HOTEL TO AIRPORT

Lingered on platform for 5 mins to take pictures

Arrived TSA Pre line at 0644

Through security at 0648

Arrived gate A30 for 0745 Delta departure at 0657

HOTEL ROOM TO DEN AIRPORT GATE IN 1 HOUR, 26 MINUTES USING PUBLIC TRANSIT

COST: $9.00 ($4.50 SENIORS OVER 65)

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The majestic Westin Hotel at DEN from the A-Line train platform

Can’t beat that time and money bargain in 2017 in Denver.  My notes re the transit trip:

  • A chilly 43 F. this morning with a stiff wind. Felt like 23.  I imagine the same trip in midwinter could be brutal and would require considerable layers of cold-weather clothes and outer garments.
  • From the A-Line platform at DIA, one must take a looooooong, [breath] loooooooong escalator (think London Tube station-long escalators) up to the airport entrance. It’s a five-story, flippin’ wind tunnel like I’ve never experienced. And that morning fierce wind blew, making the long escalator ride frigid. I cannot imagine what that ride must feel like in mid-winter. Even dressed in a suit coat, I was shivering halfway up, and it was only 43 F.

5-story escalator

  • The airport station has only four ticket machines, two that take cash, and two for credit cards. There were lines at the cash machines, and one of the two credit card machines was broken.  The other was having a tough time reading the stripe on cards.  Why would they have such great service, and yet cheap out on the ticket machines and not keep them operable?  Seems short-sighted, and doesn’t send a good signal to first-time users that Denver is serious about welcoming visitors.

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  • The Denver Airport station is in a gulf hollowed out below the Westin Hotel, with a swooping, artistic roof that covers some, but not all, of the train platform. Well, sort of a roof—designed and rendered more for art than for function.  It is dramatic, like having an overhead sculpture as you approach the trains on the platform, but it is wide open to the elements, and even today at just 43 degrees, the wind is whipping through the funnel of the man-made gully and cuts through you.  What must this feel like in February?  It makes me cold just thinking about it.

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  • Ditto for a similar swooping “roof” over the train platforms at Denver Union Station. The city spent $200 million to spiff up the gorgeous 1908 train station, but the platform “roof” treatment, though beautiful and in the same motif as DEN Airport, is entirely for appearances.  When the snow flies and the winds howl down from the Rockies, no sane person would dare linger on the platforms waiting for the A-Line trains. Would I be so anxious to make my way on foot with my roller bag and laptop bag from hotel to the 16th Street Mallride bus to DUS and then from the train platform at DEN through the wind tunnel escalator?  I don’t know, but the thought doesn’t excite me as much as this week’s lovely experience in mild weather.  Maybe I am envisioning a nonevent because the airport may close during extreme weather.
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Free “Mallride” bus service on 16th Street connects Denver Union Station to the rest of the CBD

Okay, so the A-Line train service may be challenging in small ways.  Still, I give RTD credit for launching and executing a long-overdue connection from the airport to the heart of downtown Denver.  It has some teething problems (I haven’t even mentioned the fact that every at-grade rail-highway crossing has 24/7 flaggers due to persistent software glitches), but the trains ran on time for me, and I am confident such minor systemic issues will be worked out.

Meantime, as I said above: Halleluiah! If you are headed anywhere in the Denver metro area connected to the big RTD transit network of light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and regular bus services, cancel your Hertz or Avis reservation, and take the A-Line train instead.

@RideRTD

@RTDDenver

@LightRailDenver

@DENAirport

Oktoberfest 2017 in Munich is about to begin (September 16-October 3)!  Its name belies the fact that most of the big annual beer festival occurs in September, with only a few days in October near the end.

Anyone lucky enough to be staying in Munich during those two weeks and four days must have made hotel arrangements many months in advance and paid through the nose.  Rates over Oktoberfest skyrocket.

What is the draw?  Think of Oktoberfest as the state fair of Bavaria (“Bayern” in German), but one focused on consuming oceans of beer and rivers of wine, punctuated by Bavarian favorite foods of wurst, pretzels, roast chicken, and pickled herring sandwiches.  It’s a true bacchanal!

While working in the US-European student charter flight business in 1975 and 1976, I lived in Munich.  I loved München!  The vibrant and cultured city stands out as a jewel among all the places I’ve been, and my memories of Oktoberfest are some of the happiest and most vivid of my life.

In 1975 I had a pretty good Minolta SLR. It was always loaded with Kodak slide film which I used to take pictures of that Oktoberfest.  The slide film was slow (meaning it required a lot of light), and since most of the Oktoberfest action takes place after dark, my nighttime photos are blurry. But you can definitely get the idea of the wild, happy mood.  The first four pictures below are in the Hofbräuhaus Festhalle at night when the band is playing, and everyone is laughing and singing.

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The next several photos were taken during the day of the Oktoberfest grounds.  The festival is held at Theresienwiese, a park in Munich just four blocks from where I lived in Munich in 1975-76. Theresienwiese is often used for such Munich events, including the lesser-known Frühlingsfest (Spring Fest), which features delicious bock beer.

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The final picture is of the crowds at night taken from the second floor balcony of the Hofbräuhaus Festhalle.  Even blurred, it’s easy to grasp the energy of the festival.

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The gigantic beer halls (Festhalle) for each of the beer brewers at Oktoberfest are temporary, constructed at Theresienwiese and then taken down after the fest is over every year by the “big six” Munich beer breweries (Hofbräu, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Löwenbräu, Augustinerbräu, and Paulaner—see here).  It is a great spectacle with (in my opinion) the world’s greatest lagers poured in copious quantities every day and night.

People get knee-walking drunk there with impunity and try to steal the huge glass beer steins used at Oktoberfest.  This affords law enforcement types wishing to perfect their skull-cracking skills a unique legal opportunity. In 1975, I saw Bavarian police beat the stuffing out of many a would-be thief trying to make off with a souvenir.  In my many observations, it was often a very inebriated Aussie absconding with a beer stein who got the brunt of the Polizei battons.  Having forfeited reason to alcohol, they always tried to fight back rather than to meekly crumple.

One of the great Clouseau/Pink Panther movies—some of the funniest films of all time in my book—took the bumbling French inspector to Oktoberfest looking for a bad guy in Munich. The scene filmed there is actually very accurate in feel as well as being hilarious.

Oktoberfest is a madhouse for two weeks, attracting six million visitors each year from all over the world.  That makes it an attractive target for terrorists, and German officials have been increasingly concerned in recent years over the threat of terrorism at the festival (among many, see this article).

Nonetheless, Oktoberfest should be on everyone’s bucket list.  I recommend booking hotel accommodation a year ahead and traveling into and out of Munich by train from another City to avoid higher airfares. There are literally hundreds of Oktoberfest videos offering advice on what to do and not do there, so many that I couldn’t find one that seemed optimal, though I enjoyed this one. Note her advice to go early to get in and to avoid the Hofbräuhaus Festhalle after one obligatory visit.  Personally, my favorite Munich beer is Spaten, but with such great lagers it’s a hard to choose a best one.

In closing, here is some Oktoberfest music to put you in the right mood . Hokey?  Maybe, but great fun! Go with it, and it will make you happy!

 

Why go to Rarotonga?

For that matter, where is Rarotonga?

Map of Rarotonga in South Pacific (8-31-17)

Rarotonga is one of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.  It isn’t the largest atoll in the group, but it’s “bigly touristified,” as our president might say, among the Cooks. And its encircling reef boasts terrific snorkeling and diving in warm lagoons: a paradise for those who like palm trees and coral, as we do.  Therefore, the little dot of land, just 34 kms around (21 miles), came to our notice as a possible Christmas vacation destination.

Only a “possible” vacation spot because my wife and I tend to be opportunists when it comes to vacation travel.  We look for the best fares and schedules among several competing alternative places to go.

During cold-weather months we prefer a warm, sunny environment, preferably one with a beach and good snorkeling (we stopped diving years ago—too much trouble).  Tropical places one or both of us have enjoyed include The Philippines, Thailand (both coasts), St. John, Grand Cayman, Barbados, Bali, Costa Rica, Belize, Isla Mujeres, The Bahamas, The Maldives, Fiji, Mauritius, Hawaii, Tahiti, and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.  And more we can’t remember.  We really like palm trees, sand, and blue water.

That said, we never before even considered Rarotonga, partly because it had barely registered on our senses.  But then we noticed this in Joe Brancatelli’s August 17 weekly newsletter under “Steals & Deals”:

AIR NEW ZEALAND: Okay, Baby, How About $2,500+ Business Class to the South Pacific?
Sometimes it’s just flat-out fun to follow these extraordinary deals as airlines test and figure out how to fill an aircraft. As you surely know by now, Air New Zealand has regularly promoted exceptionally cheap business class fares to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands using its nonstop flight from Los Angeles. The eye-opening initial price was just $1,998 roundtrip. The deal has been regularly revived at prices fluctuating between $1,800 and $2,200. It’s now back at $2,554 roundtrip if you travel on select dates for the next year. The slightly higher price is justified by the fact that Air New Zealand is now operating the route with its latest lie-flat business class beds. But there’s still only one flight a week in each direction, departing late Saturday nights from LAX and late Friday nights from Rarotonga. Still, for a South Pacific trip at such a low price, those aren’t tough conditions. Tickets must be purchased by August 31. You even earn frequent flyer miles. (If you want to do the South Pacific in cheap comfort, Air New Zealand is selling seats in its excellent premium economy cabin for $1,614 roundtrip.) Information: the Air New Zealand FLIGHTS TO COOK ISLANDS page..

That led me to do basic research on Rarotonga, and it made the “possibles” cut for our 2017 Christmas trip, along with such places as The Seychelles, St. John (we love that island), Thailand, and Australia.  At the end of our comparative analysis of the various possibilities, the Air New Zealand flights looked like the best bang for the buck in Premium Economy, our desired booking class.  Trolling their website for the dates we wanted, excellent fares were available, even though it was over the busiest Christmas holiday period: less than $200 over the lowest $1614 fare in Joe’s Steals & Deals item.

However, several challenges made the Air New Zealand deal to Rarotonga (RAR airport) difficult.  Air NZ only flies to Rarotonga from USA once weekly, meaning we’d have to stay there either five and a half days or just over twelve days.  That odd reality is due to the 777 flights originating in Aukland, stopping at RAR late Friday night, and arriving LAX midday on Saturday.  Return flights to RAR and AUK leave LAX late Saturday nights and arrive RAR early Sunday mornings.  Thus, if we chose to return on the next once-weekly NZ flight, our stay in Rarotonga would be just five and a half days (Sunday morning until the following Friday night).

A second problem was that Air NZ doesn’t have through fare from Raleigh on a partner carrier, so we would be on our own to get to and from Los Angeles from RDU to connect to and from the NZ RAR flights.  These would be, of course, separate records and not connected, so the financial risk of a misconnect is ours alone if one or the other airline stubs its toe on the flights we booked.

We decided the risk was worth the savings, and I went back to the Air New Zealand online site and plugged in the dates we wanted.  While there, I also tested Business Class fares in both directions (LAX/RAR and RAR/LAX).  The business class fare was very little more than Premium Economy, and I grabbed it for one leg: the total fare a little over $1900 per person including tax for PE outbound and Biz Class returning.

Feeling pretty good about being able to travel in comfort and style on Air NZ, I dreaded looking again at RDU/LAX fares, which were close to $600 per person for flights on Delta. I booked schedules that gave us plenty of extra time at both ends to mitigate a possible misconnect.  Eastbound (coming home), the Air New Zealand flight isn’t schedule to land until 11:15 AM, so I opted to book on a nonstop LAX/RDU flight early the following morning and snagged a $100 Westin LAX room on Travelocity with a free airport shuttle and early check-in for the overnight stay in Los Angeles.

With the air trip planning done, it was time to get serious about finding a nice place on the beach in Rarotonga. In addition to having a lagoon with good snorkeling and providing nice surroundings, the property would need to let us check in early (since our NZ flight lands at 6:05 AM) and must be willing to let us stay late the following Friday (since our NZ flight doesn’t depart until 11:55 PM). I found plenty of beautiful resort places to choose from, but the half-board prices, including airport transfers, for beachfront accommodation (and not the best) tended be almost $4000 for five nights before tips and alcohol.  Ouch!

Fun map of RAROTONGA (8-31-17)

More research led to the realization that Rarotonga is really tiny and intimate. Maybe staying in a private home and going to restaurants would be fine, I thought. So my wife and I checked Airbnb and discovered a plethora of beachfront places, all at a very reasonable cost compared to the resorts (less than half).  We had rented a great place in Provence via www.Gite.com years before Airbnb existed, but we have never used Airbnb before.

Until now.  We found a place that we liked right on the beach and with a great snorkeling lagoon steps out the front door, and we were able to book it.  Happily, the property owner is allowing us to check in very early morning due to our Air New Zealand flight landing at 0605 and will let us stay late on Friday, too.

Rarotonga Airbnb beach house view (8-31-17)

The view of the lagoon from the Rarotonga beachfront house we have rented via Airbnb

I considered relying entirely on the island bus circulator that travels in both directions all day for transport—plus the bicycles provided by the Airbnb property—but decided we might need a car to get around more conveniently in addition to those modes.  Checking with Hertz and Avis, I struck out, but Kemwell was able to promise a Toyota Corolla for $72 a day all-in (everything on Rarotonga is expensive).  Odd thing is, Kemwell’s supplier is Avis, even though Avis told me, a Presidents’ Club member, that no cars were available over the Christmas period.

So it’s off to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands over Christmas, a new sandy, sunny, coconut palm-infested destination to learn about. All because of Air New Zealand offering such a great deal in Premium Economy and Business, and thanks to Joe Brancatelli for the alert.  I’ll report in January whether the place lives up to its hype, but danged if I can so far find many comments deriding the rock.  So I travel there in hope.

Last week I took our eldest child to college in Iowa from Raleigh.

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Our wonderful son, Will, is a brilliant pianist, a math brain, and a computer programing wizard. It’s a great combination of gifts, all of which he has worked hard to nurture in the direction of excellence.  Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, my wife’s alma mater, early on recognized his unique bundle of talent and courted him with a fervor.

The college had to work hard to even get his attention.  Raleigh, North Carolina is a long way from Decorah, Iowa, and even though Luther is known for strong music, math, and computer science/data science courses of study, it’s still a small liberal arts school in relatively remote northeastern Iowa.  Will looked at a lot of colleges and universities, all much bigger and more prestigious than Luther.

Luther lassoed Will into a recruiting weekend (at their expense) to campus in November last year, and he liked what he found: a great music school that promised to perfect his piano talent, a personalized approach to learning computer science, and a friendly environment all round.  Still, he wasn’t convinced.

Then Luther offered him the school’s top piano scholarship and the top academic scholarship, together worth $30,000 per year, edging him closer to acceptance.  After a miserable experience in his high schools International Baccalaureate program, twinned with the realization that no big university would give him the opportunity to include a music major with his computer science studies, Will opted for Luther, where the parallel study of music and computer science was possible.

The decision brought with it certain logistical challenges.  Driving to Decorah, Iowa from Raleigh is a two-day affair, and the timing of moving our son there coincided with our daughter starting 9th grade.  That negated a family road trip.  My wife and I agreed that I would accompany Will to college and assist with his move-in while she took care of getting our daughter off to high school.

After searching all the airports with commercial service surrounding Decorah, large and small, flying Raleigh to Minneapolis proved to be the best bet. Airports nearest Decorah, IA are:

58 miles: La Crosse, WI (LSE) La Crosse Municipal Airport

70 miles: Rochester, MN (RST) Rochester International Airport

84 miles: Waterloo, IA (ALO) Waterloo Regional Airport

115 miles: Cedar Rapids, IA (CID) The Eastern Iowa Airport

115 miles: Dubuque, IA (DBQ) Dubuque Regional Airport

150 miles: Minneapolis, MN (MSP) Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport

MSP is the biggest airport by far near Decorah (about 2.25 hours by car) and the least expensive combination of airfare and car rental cost, not to mention convenience (direct flights rather than connecting flights).

Delta has the only nonstops, and the fares on other carriers were not significantly cheaper, so I bought tickets for my son and me RDU/MSP.  Happily, I was able to use two of my remaining Delta Platinum upgrades to get us into First Class.  I wanted my son to have a first class experience going off to college.

Because we were not driving up to deliver the usual vanload of furniture, linens, and clothes to his dorm room, I ordered linens from a college supplier approved by Luther, and that big box of sheets and towels included a small lamp and clip-on fan for his use. Those were delivered straight to his dormitory room by the college, thanks to a service provided by Luther.

We researched the closest Target Store to the MSP Airport going in a southerly direction (that is, going toward Decorah) where we could stop to buy such dorm room essentials as a small fridge, waste can, and oscillating fan.  I reserved a Nissan Pathfinder from Hertz to have a vehicle large enough to transport all the Target items we intended to buy, along with his several suitcases and duffles of clothes, computer, toiletries, music books, programming language manuals, school supplies, and miscellany which we would get from Raleigh to Minneapolis via checked luggage on Delta.

 

To my surprise, we were able to get everything our son wanted and needed (save the Target stuff) into two large and two carry-on bags, plus a backpack for his computer and other valuables.  It’s been many years since I checked luggage on an airline, and I was pleased to see how smoothly it went.  My Lifetime Platinum status on Delta merited special elite tags, and it was a snap to leave them with the fellows outside the terminal at RDU. (At the other end of our journey, however, those tags seemed only to assure that our bags would come off last on the belt.)

 

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Since I am compulsive about arriving to airports early, Will and I had loads of time to lounge in the Delta Sky Club (I still want to type Crown Room) at RDU before our flight.  It was an emotional time for me and would only get more so as the next few days wore on.  I tried to read the papers, but I was too anxious to absorb the print.  My son, though, appeared cool and tranquil to be embarking upon one of the greatest adventures of his young life.

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The flight to the Twin Cities was on time, with a good breakfast up front even on the dinky little CRJ.  First Class seats are three across in the usual 1-2 configuration, and surprisingly comfortable, especially compared to the very cramped economy seats.  We landed a few minutes early and were soon headed for Hertz after waiting for the checked bags.

I love Hertz’s email that comes the day of pickup providing the space number in the Gold Canopy.  We walked straight to the car and took off, checking only that I had just 5/8 in the gas tank.  Hertz said they didn’t have time to refill all the cars that morning.

Our planned stop at Target yielded the items we targeted (no pun intended), and we stuffed the big mini-fridge box into the back of the Pathfinder in misting Minnesota rain.  Afterwards, we stopped at one of Will’s favorite fast food joints, Raising Cane, to get our fill of their delicious fat and juicy chicken fingers drenched in their famous “Cane’s Sauce.”

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All the distractions since we landed kept my heavy heart at bay.  So did driving in the rain for over two hours south to Decorah from Minneapolis.  Both of us were impressed with the Pathfinder.  It handled beautifully, responding with a sure feel and with automatic switching to 4WD as driving conditions warranted.  I was to discover that it merely sipped fuel, too, getting about 31 MPG on the trip.  It made me want to buy one.

Arriving to Luther College in Decorah mid-afternoon gave us plenty of time to hit the marks of our scheduled appointments with Residence Life (to get a photo ID made and to acquire the dorm room key) and to meet with the head of the Music Department for a tour of the Music Building and piano practice rooms.  By 5:00 PM Will was moved into his dorm room and mostly set up.

 

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That night I checked into one of the 34 rooms of the restored 19th century Hotel Winneshiek in downtown Decorah.  Just a mile or two from Luther College, the grand old lady has been updated without losing her charm.  The property boasts pretty swift wifi and is the only full-service hotel in the surrounding area.  My son and I dined next door at the oldest and most storied pizza joint in town, Mabe’s.  The pies were delicious, if too big for one meal, and the local lager was excellent .

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Driving out of town to return to Minneapolis to catch my flight back to Raleigh, I mused that our son is on a fine heading for his future happiness and for a fulfilling life.  We couldn’t be more pleased for him.  Will is the smartest guy I know, capable of doing anything he wants. Luther College is going to offer him life and learning experiences he never imagined in computer science/data science, music, and math. He is brilliant and can do anything he decides to do.  We are so very happy for him and so very proud of him.  But I cried like a baby as I drove away.

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Travel planning via the Internet has become, for me, de rigueur, mostly replacing the once-common practice of making 800 calls to my favorite airline, hotel, and rental car partners to book. Lately I’ve been wondering if the transition to cold technology over the warmth of interacting with a real person would ever be complete.  I hope not, and based on a recent trip last week, I don’t think so.  That is, not unless travel providers close off every means to access their services via a real live human being.

Back in the early 1980s I was already recognized by some airlines as a valuable customer.  Eastern Airlines, for instance, hooked me up with their hush-hush “Commuter Desk” phone numbers that reached special agents in Chicago, Boston, and a few other locations.  Usually, each of EA’s Commuter Desks were staffed by just two dedicated agents who seemed to work 24/7.  They dispensed god-like powers to rebook me out of jams, even the worst snarls and cancellations due to weather or ATC delays at ORD, LGA, or anywhere.  Commuter Desk agents would even rebook me on OA (Other Airlines) as a last resort—anything necessary to get me to my destination or to get me home.  That highly personalized service, combined with my invitation-only (at first) membership in the Eastern “Executive Traveler” program that provided free space-available upgrades to First Class, guaranteed my loyalty and kept me flying on EA until their collapse in 1991.

Ditto with Delta.  DL made me a member of the invitation-only (at first) Crown Rooms and bestowed upon me the accolade of “Flying Colonel,” an honorary program long since lost to history. While access to a Delta analog to the EA Commuter Desk was elusive, somebody at Delta nonetheless always had my back, as evidenced by calls I’d routinely get from Delta reps on weekends assuring me that a looming cancellation or significant delay had been “fixed” for my ticket.  I was rarely grounded or delayed when flying Delta in the 1980s. That personalized service sealed my loyalty to Delta, leading me to earn 5.3 million miles and still counting.

In the late 1970s British Airways had me permanently coded in their system as a frequent flyer via the cryptic message “passenger previously mishandled” to signal any gate agent that I was to be upgraded and coddled at every opportunity, including BA lounge privileges at JFK and LHR even when flying in economy.

My favored hotels (mostly Hilton and Hyatt) also rewarded me with personal touches, including overbooking properties for me when necessary and routine upgrades to suites and lounge floor rooms even before frequent stay programs were launched.  Avis made me “Presidents Club” and would pick me up at airport terminals and drop me off when I returned their cars, calling first to make sure I knew where to meet the car.

Those glory days are mostly gone, of course, crowded out by cost-cutting and the sterile Internet of travel.  But a recent family wedding trip from Raleigh to northern Minnesota reminded me that the human touch isn’t dead yet.

Using the Internet (AA.com) months in advance, I booked my family of four on American Airlines AAdvantage award tickets RDU/MSP.  We could not get on the same flights, however, due to limited award seat availability, necessitating three different itineraries, with two of us connecting through LGA, one through DCA, and one through PHL.  A pain, but we all were scheduled to arrive in the Twin Cities within the same hour.

However, the day before departure, terrible storms were forecast throughout the Northeast, and AA sent me a text with a warning that our flights might be impacted.  After reading the message, I immediately phoned one of the Elite desks—I am a Lifetime Gold at American; I admit that having even lowly Gold status helps when talking to a real person at an airline—and I asked if we could all be rebooked together on the same alternate flights to avoid the predictable delays and cancellations that would hit the Northeast airports the next day.

I struck up a cordial conversation with the reservation agent just to be friendly, and I humbly acknowledged that these were mere 25,000 mile award travel tickets, and thus I didn’t expect success to my request.  The agent and I clicked, and she generously rebooked us RDU/MSP through DFW to avoid the bad weather.  Furthermore, she found seats in the same row near the front of the plane just behind Main Cabin Extra, which was already full.

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RDU/DFW on AA was full, but somehow a reservation agent managed to get us on and all seated together, thanks to the human touch.

I could never have done that via the Internet.  Naturally, I thanked her profusely, and the next morning our flights to DFW and then to MSP were comfortable and went off without a hitch.

The day before our return I phoned AA again.  Though we had no weather delay notifications, I wanted to try to get us together on the same flights, as we had been able to do going out.  The itinerary for my daughter and me was on the following day, requiring an overnight stay at an MSP hotel, while my wife was traveling the same day.

Once again I chatted with the AA agent and acknowledged that these were the smallest travel awards on the AAdvantage chart, but, I said, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  The agent and I hit a chord, and soon he had us all booked on the same-day flights, avoiding the cost of a hotel.  He even seated us together in the same row of Main Cabin Extra because of my Gold elite status.

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The generous space between seats in Main Cabin Extra, thanks to a kind AA rez agent.

His kindness left me speechless, but I soon found my voice and thanked him enthusiastically before hanging up.  Once again, the human touch of speaking person-to-person had succeeded in a travel outcome not possible via a computer.

On the same trip I suddenly needed a room for several nights in Fargo, North Dakota.  Our extended family was hosting too many people in their homes to comfortably accommodate everyone.  I was surprised to find hotel prices in the Fargo (ND)-Moorhead (MN) area at every Internet portal to be a minimum of $100-120 plus tax per night.  This included the Microtel (by Wyndham) in Moorhead which was ideally situated for our needs.  Someone had mentioned the Microtel had $75 rooms, so I phoned the hotel direct.

After a few minutes of polite conversation, I was able to snag a $80 room rate at the Microtel that included two queens, free wifi, and the hotel’s hot breakfast for everyone.  I was dubious that we’d get much for $80, but the rooms and the property were spotless, friendly, plenty spacious, and comfortable, and the breakfasts above average.  It was a great bargain, again because I had interacted with a real person.  No Internet rates at the Microtel for that period were below $100 per night.

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The friendly, clean, comfortable, and inexpensive Microtel (by Wyndham) in Moorhead, Minnesota.  Free wifi and hot breakfast, too, for just $80  night.

Not to say that I could live without Internet in my travel planning and execution these days.  For example, we picked up a Hertz van at MSP that I’d reserved, and Hertz sent me a text with the location for pickup that enabled me to bypass even the Gold screen.  I walked directly to the car, which was exactly what I wanted, and I drove out.  Simple, fast, easy, all because we avoided human contact and relied entirely on the machine.

Leaving the MSP airport and the Twin Cities area at 1:00 PM on a Friday afternoon, we encountered bumper-to-bumper backups on I-94 North.  It’s a 3-4 hour drive from the Cities to Fargo-Moorhead, and a family dinner awaited.  The Google map directions on my Samsung S7 Edge soon had us on alternate routes to bypass the worst of the traffic jams, and we made it to the old homestead in time.  Again, this was thanks to the GPS and mapping technology built into my smartphone combined with the Internet: very useful indeed.

Returning to Minneapolis four days later, we ran into another traffic delay on I-94 South and neatly avoided it via a Google Map detour route without even asking for it.  No personal touch could have helped with that like the machine software did, for which I was extra grateful. I don’t suffer being stuck in traffic well these days; perhaps I never did.  The route detour saved my sanity as well as time.

As long as travel providers continue to allow us ways and means to reach real people to solve travel conundrums not conducive to automation, I will be at ease with the transition to technology-based travel planning.

Though perhaps it’s not a transition so much as it is an integration of the personal touch with machine-based solutions.  That’s my wish, anyway.

Sophistication of travel-related online portals and via our many smartphone travel services apps continues to evolve and improve—all well and good—but, personally, I would hate to see real people in the travel planning process eliminated entirely.

Heck, I’ve got thirty-four 500-mile upgrades banked in my AAdvantage account that American’s automated upgrade system never lets me use because there are so many Executive Platinums ahead of me on every flight.  Once in a while, though, a real person working for AA ponders their system’s Catch-22 and overrides it to put me in First Class. A computer lacks the empathetic discretion of a personal touch like that.