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!

 

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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.

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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.

Recent air travel news prompted me to ask: Why?  A lot of whys, actually.

Why, oh why would a well-known TV personality and writer of a slew of best sellers who is reputedly worth at least $8.5 million and who is a frequent flyer ever buy a coach ticket?  Yet that’s what Ann Coulter did, a wealthy woman famous for taking no prisoners and being a sharp thinker.  While it’s true that she bought a supposedly upgraded seat in what Delta markets as their premium economy cabin (called Comfort+), it’s STILL coach, and we all know it.  Although you can see the first class cabin from there without squinting.

Why wouldn’t a rich and famous person like her simply buy a first class ticket?  This was just a domestic flight, after all, not a pricy international business class.  The fare difference is a rounding error compared to her annual income, and airfare is a fully deductible expense, assuming she was traveling on business.  I don’t blame her, frankly, for being upset about being moved from the seat she chose, but that brouhaha is a distraction.

The real question remains: What was she doing in coach to begin with?  Had she purchased a first class ticket and then moved to a different first class seat from the one she selected, would it have mattered?  Maybe, but are there really any bad seats in the front cabin?

Who in their right mind would CHOOSE to fly in ANY PART of the coach cabin these days if money was no object?  To my mind, she brought this on herself and deserved the embarrassment of having Delta refund her the paltry thirty dollars—THIRTY DOLLARS!—she paid for the “privilege” to fly in Discomfort+.  Geez!  Much ado about nothing.

As if that wasn’t laughable enough, why, oh why would any airline dignify her craziness with a pompous and hypocritical statement like the one Delta issued:

“We are sorry that the customer did not receive the seat she reserved and paid for. More importantly, we are disappointed that the customer has chosen to publicly attack our employees and other customers by posting derogatory and slanderous comments and photos in social media. Her actions are unnecessary and unacceptable.                   

“Each of our employees is charged with treating each other as well as our customers with dignity and respect. And we hold each other accountable when that does not happen.

“Delta expects mutual civility throughout the entire travel experience.”

Oh, brother, Delta, please spare me the sanctimonious corporate swoon as you unconvincingly feign to have your commercial feelings bruised on account of being entirely undeserving of reproach. As if an airline could shed a tear from the hurt of being disparaged.

Overlong whining in your proclamation as well:  As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, methinks thou protest too much.  While you and your winged ilk self-righteously pretend to treat your customers “with dignity and respect,” too often our utter misery in the sardine can seats your marketing prodigies call comfortable is masked by our fear of being blackballed as a “security risk” if we complain and by our fierce determination to act civil not to you, but to our fellow prisoners crushed with us into your all-too-narrow aluminum tubes.

Why, oh why did our Congress abandon its duty to protect the American consumer and allow the consolidation of U.S. airlines to just three majors (four, if you count Southwest)?  The result?  United Airlines, the worst of the worst, with a reputation lower than whale dung that drifts to the bottom of the ocean, “posted a profit of $818 million in the most recent quarter, ending in June, up 39 percent compared with last year. Sales rose, too, as more customers booked flights with the carrier…” This despite the infamous incident of beating 69 year old Dr. Dao into unconsciousness and then dragging him off a plane three months ago (you can see the video embedded again in this NYT article here).

The other airlines aren’t doing so poorly, either, according to all reports.  With little or no competition in many markets now, fares have skyrocketed. Why? Because with no regulation and no competition, the airlines can charge as much as they like. I just (reluctantly) paid $544 for a round trip coach ticket RDU/MSP in mid-August to take my son to college, leaving early on a Thursday and returning early Sunday morning—not exactly peak travel periods.  It was the least expensive fare I could find on these off-travel days/times in a mundane market, a ticket that used to cost just under $300.

Why, oh why have Americans opted for price over comfort, with no balance, no compromise?  Apparently, no airline seat is too cramped and inhumanly tight side to side and front to back to cause the average American to cry “Uncle!” or to emit even the slightest whimper of protest.  Where are the minimum federally-mandated standards of seat width and pitch?  Indeed, where is the simple outrage?  Anyone who has flown on a Canadair CRJ knows the 2-2 seat configuration should long ago have been banned.  Compare two hours smushed into one of those torture chambers with two hours on an Embraer ERJ in the usual 1-2 configuration.  Close-fitting?  Absolutely.  Agonizing?  Not to me. Yet the CRJs ply the skies daily, sowing torment, and I hear no one complaining.

In the same vein, why, oh why do we succumb to ever-trickier airfare pricing schemes? Joe Brancatelli pointed out in his JoeSentMe column on Bastille Day and the L.A. Times ran a story the same day (see here) about UA considering a new program to buy back tickets from passengers and resell them to people willing to pay more. Delta has had its own version of this hat trick (see the same LAT article).  These programs are currently voluntary, but will they morph into common practice that those who pay the least are never guaranteed a seat until the door closes?  Why not?  Nothing has stopped the airlines from unbounded flimflammery up to now.  Don’t believe me?  Check the current value of your favorite frequent flyer programs.

If all these things are true, then why, oh why do we keep heaping these buckets of misery on ourselves? Perhaps because we used to love to travel, or because we have to fly for any number of reasons.

Or, if you’re like me, because you still do love to travel by air despite the pain and suffering, no matter the death by a thousand cuts, and even while paying through the nose for the wretched travails of contemporary flying. Because going places and meeting new people and seeing how they live, work, and play are among the most exciting and mind-expanding experiences of life.

And also because, in America, there are big tradeoffs in time among the few mobility alternatives to air: Highways are congested and slow, and the voting public hates high speed trains, or even slow ones, so Amtrak service is too Spartan to be taken seriously. Flying becomes the least-worst alternative, which is a sorry state of affairs.

After the wheels touch down at your destination, how do you leave the airport?  Never have we had so many choices before: rental car, black car service, taxi, Uber/Lyft, ZIP Car/Car2Go, limousine, and public transit.

Wait, did I say public transit?  Airport transit connections have been commonplace in Europe for decades, but in America?  Or in Asia?

Well, yeah.  Things are changing.  When the demands of management consulting made me a road warrior in the 70s, I headed straight for the Avis or Hertz counter after landing.  The thought of taking public transit from any American airport never entered my mind because few such options then existed.

Now, though, public transit connections from U.S. airports are growing. SmarterTravel lists so many I couldn’t keep count (https://www.smartertravel.com/2012/08/07/best-u-s-airports-for-public-transportation/), although their facts are wrong about Salt Lake City.  SLC Airport has had excellent light rail connecting service to downtown from the airport for several years.

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Utah Transit Authority light rail from SLC Airport to downtown Salt Lake

Asian public transit is also improving.  In the old days, when my 747 landed at Hong Kong, I made a beeline for the taxi queue.  Now there’s a fast and frequent airport train service that goes to Kowloon and Central that I prefer over taxi service (http://www.hongkongairport.com/eng/transport/to-from-airport/airport-express.html).  I’ve tried both the train and the taxi, and the train is a lot cheaper unless you have three or four in your group traveling together.  And it’s almost always faster and less stressful than the horrific traffic snarls in Hong Kong.

Singapore also has good subway service from Changi airport, though you have to be sure you’re in Terminal 2 or 3 and find your way to the basement station (http://www.changiairport.com/en/transport/public-transport.html).

Regardless of destination—Europe, U.S., or Asia—public transit options, when useful, give me one more mobility choice, and that’s good.  Last week I mentioned the great light rail service at MSP Airport that connects to almost everywhere in the Twin Cities region.  Often I can avoid a rental car altogether by taking public transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul, supplementing when I must with a car-sharing service like Uber.

I did the same in San Francisco last October, taking BART into the city from SFO, and then using Lyft, Flywheel, CalTrain commuter rail, and MUNI buses to get where I needed to go. Using those modes avoided having to rent and park a car.  It was wonderful!

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BART train at SFO Airport to San Francisco CBD

Last time I flew into Salt Lake City, I used light rail from the airport to connect to the FrontRunner commuter rail train to travel south to Provo.  I had a meeting at BYU, not far from the Provo station. My hotel provided a shuttle to get me back and forth to the rail station.  Again, no rental car.

A new electric commuter rail “A Line” runs now between DIA and downtown Denver where great connections can be made to the citywide bus and light rail transit network. I’ll be there in September for a conference, and once again, thank God, I won’t have to rent a car, and I will not have to fret about parking a car.  Best of all, by not having to drive from the Denver airport, I won’t have to worry about which toll roads I accidentally enter that ding me for exorbitant charges (https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/electronic-toll-collectors-generate-expensive-surprises-for-rental-car-drivers-052715.html).

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The new commuter rail line between DIA and central Denver

If you got excited when I mentioned limousines as one mobility possibility to take you away in style from your destination airport, then you may be sad to learn that Etihad just announced no more limos for premium customers (http://www.etihad.com/en/about-us/etihad-news/archive/2017/etihad-updates-to-ground-and-inflight-services). Kind of a bummer to lose that perk, even though I never used it.

Okay, no fancy stretch limo or driver in livery, but I am still a happy camper because public transit options from more airports give me just that: another option. Transit provides an additional mobility choice at the airport, and if it is frequent, fast, and reasonably inexpensive, then it’s a useful option, too.

Every business trip has its own special set of mobility requirements, of course, and I can’t always use public transit as a result. But when I can, I do, and I don’t miss my rental car.

The anticipation of attending a three-day transit workshop in Minneapolis last week delighted me in many ways beyond the content of the event itself: a nonstop flight (rather than enduring a connection) of reasonable duration (just 2.5 hours); the prospect of using one of our country’s best-integrated, most frequent, and best-networked public transit systems (rather than the bother of driving and parking a rental car); and the fun of trying out a new (new for me) hotel brand, the AC By Marriott.  My pleasurable expectations were fulfilled, save for the flight home.  Many business trips are an endurance contest, start to finish, whereas as this one was just short of a joy all the way. How often can we say that about traveling?

An unexpected amusement at the outset of my journey: The recent RDU Delta Sky Club renovation included the whimsical addition of five pictures of native North Carolina food and drink: Lance Nabs (the famous crackers were founded in Charlotte and still made there), Cheerwine (the very cherry soda founded in Salisbury, NC a century ago), Mount Olive Pickles (from, well, Mount Olive, NC), Texas Pete Hot Sauce (founded in Winston-Salem) and Krispy Kreme Donuts (founded in Greensboro).

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All well and good, but where, I wondered, was the picture of Pepsi-Cola?  After all, Pepsi was founded in 1898, and my Great-Grandfather, attorney Alfred Decatur Ward, incorporated and patented Pepsi-Cola for the inventor in New Bern, NC.

I was quite pleased with the RDU Sky Club in other respects, too.  It now has roughly twice the interior space of the old one, and the décor is sunny and light, and the atmosphere quieter than, say, any of the horribly-overcrowded Sky Clubs at MSP, my destination.

Once at my gate, I mused as I waited to board about the spacious and sunny feeling of the concourse, too.  It feels so serene compared to the claustrophobic nature of low-ceiling airport terminals like Charlotte and Philly.

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The plane was the usual despicable, way-too-small RJ that airlines often dispatch these days instead of real aircraft, but I had been notified two days earlier that my upgrade request cleared, so I breathed easy as the massing crowd began to circle the gate to board.  I was reminded that airline employees, not usually paragons of sincere kind-heartedness, privately disparage those who wait close to the boarding area as “gate lice.”

I settled into my one-side seat 1A and dozed until takeoff.  On climb-out I was surprised to be offered a cold breakfast.  I accepted and was soon sated, glad I had scheduled myself on a morning flight.

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After dining I snoozed and read until the wheels went down for landing.  Looking out the window I caught a magnificent view of the Minneapolis CBD and fumbled with my phone to get a quick picture.

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Normally I pay close attention to my arrival gate at any airport because I have to figure out how to navigate to the rental car shuttle, but knowing I was taking light rail transit from the heart of MSP Airport, I didn’t even take note of our gate when the plane parked.  Instead, I looked overhead for the sign directing me to the light rail station in the basement and followed the excellent signage to the subterranean platform for the train into downtown Minneapolis.

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So what is light rail, or LRT (light rail transit)?  It is an all-electric fast train that runs on tracks in its own exclusive corridor. In the Twin Cities it operates at ten minute intervals for 20 hours a day so that you don’t have to consult schedules.  Just show up at a station, and a train is never more than 9 minutes away.   Once riders near bus or LRT lines know the routes and connections, they rarely have to drive again.  The secret of an integrated system like that of the Twin Cities Metro lies in network strength and frequency.  Both equate to freedom from having to drive and park.  The more robust the frequent service transit network (“frequent” transit meaning service at least every 15 minutes), the more likely it’s going where you need to go.

In Minneapolis-St. Paul the buses and trains are all-weather, too, and always have been, even when streetcars were the way to go, as this picture from the Metro operations center shows:

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And they were always frequent, too, as seen in this old State Fair photograph:

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Transit guru Jarrett Walker is fond of saying that “frequency is freedom” and Metro lives by that mantra, as advertised everywhere:

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Back to my easy transit odyssey from the MSP Airport to downtown Minneapolis:  I had already obtained and activated an all-day pass through the first-rate Metro Transit app on my phone, so I just boarded the train and enjoyed the ride.

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The Twin Cities Metro Blue Line light rail is above ground everywhere but at the airport.  One of two LRT lines, the Blue Line carries an amazing 30,000 weekday riders between the Mall of America where there are excellent BRT and regular bus connections and Target Field in downtown Minneapolis with many more transit connections, including the Northstar commuter rail line and the Green Line LRT to the University of Minnesota and to St. Paul (which carries an astonishing 40,000 weekday riders).

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I got off at the Hennepin Ave station and was immediately asked by a smiling Metro Transit customer service rep on the platform where I was going. When I told her the AC By Marriott Hotel, she walked me to the corner and pointed the way.  A block later I was standing in front of the hotel.

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Or at least I thought I was. The building proudly announced it was the AC, but I could not locate the entrance, and the street-level windows were all curtained, which made peering in impossible.  Where was the entry?  I tried a nondescript door which looked like a service entrance and found myself inside a vestibule with another door to what, as I squinted to look in, might be a lobby.

But the door was locked.  I noticed a squawk box and pushed the button to call someone.  When I announced myself as an arriving guest, the interior door slid open.

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It was not a reassuring first impression of this newish brand (new for me, at least) of Marriott.  Taking the measure of the interior space, which was quite dark compared to the sunlit street, I spotted what I thought could be the front desk, though it was modest by most hotel standards.  As my eyes adjusted to the shaded environment, I saw two smiling young women beckoning me forward.  In no time they had me checked in and assigned to a room, even though I had arrived just past noon.  No rigmarole about room availability or arriving early; they gave me my key and pointed me to the lifts.

As I surveyed the lobby and adjacent bar and breakfast area, I was struck by how trendy, modern, hip, and chic the minimalist furnishings and décor were.  All blond woods and some stainless steel, but the woods had won the day by far.  The public spaces looked and felt expensive, arty, relaxed, cool, and classy.  Huh! I thought.  I never associate “class” with any Marriott hotel brand.  “Turgid,” maybe.  But the AC lobby felt, by contrast, European, unlike any Marriott I’ve ever seen.

Upstairs in the room my initial impression was mixed: Like the lobby, a Euro-minimalist design with a lot of wood, but only one window to the outside world.  However, as the room seeped into me, I realized that I liked the unique hardwood floors very much, and also the room’s dark wood and natural colors. Bathroom and shower were also spiffy, with lots of glass and a rain shower head.

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Back downstairs in the lobby/bar area, I asked the doorman why the front doors were locked. Locked 24/7 to keep street riffraff out, he cheerfully told me, and the elevators worked only by key card to any floor, again to keep out undesirables.  He apologized for my trouble getting in and slipped me an elite pass to the free evening drinks and modest buffet in the lobby. Later, the barman would also comp me a drink for no reason except that I chatted him up and told him how much I liked the upbeat modern design of the hotel.

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By contrast to the breezy AC atmosphere, I stopped at the nearby Marriott Renaissance for drinks with colleagues the following night, and I realized that I loathed its cookie cutter pretentiousness.  Didn’t much like the Renaissance’s $131 bill for one round of eight drinks, either. Over sixteen bucks per drink for the usual beer and wine made me like the AC even better.

Asking around, I learned that the AC hotel brand was created by a Spaniard, Antonio Catalan, in 1998. Senor Catalan envisioned more casual, Spanish-styled properties, which tend to be less formal, but modern in flair. He sold the chain to Marriott in 2011.

Marriott seems to have done well with AC in the US by not monkeying around with the concept, even though Marriott is reputed to be indifferent to its properties these days. Some observers view Marriott’s strategy as creating brands to pump rooms into markets and then to sell everything by marketing Marriott Rewards and Marriott generically.

Be that as it may, the AC was a refreshing change.  It made me feel young and made me think of words like “pizzazz” and “zest.” It exuded a relaxed, understated elegance without self-importance.

Returning to the airport by the same efficient and fast Blue Line LRT, I ran the TSA gauntlet and found my way to the nearest Delta Sky Club.  It was claustrophobically over-crowded, but I needed some fluids and a snack.  I stayed long enough to sample the buffet, but the human congestion drove me out to another Sky Club nearer my gate.  Finding that one SRO as well—and looking very messy, like a bar after the big game was over, I didn’t stay.  My wait at the gate was more pleasant than the club though the airport was mobbed everywhere.

No upgrade awaited me that night, and on yet another dreaded RJ.  Sure, I had a seat in the so-called Comfort+ rows that claimed to be a few generous inches more spacious front to back than the rest of coach, but the four-across seats in the slender CRJ tube are equally cramped whether just behind the first class curtain or in the last row.  The large guy seated next to me in the window seat of row 6 was a Diamond also denied an upgrade, and he was rightfully glum.  As we were both very frequent flyers, we toughed it out for two and half hours to Raleigh without complaint, shoulder to shoulder with zero room between us, both uncomfortable as hell.  It was the lone unpleasant experience on an otherwise remarkably tranquil trek.