December travel musing

In that peculiar annual period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when it seems not much work gets done, I counter the trend by taking stock of the year just ending and to think about and plan travel for the coming 12 months.  For me, it’s a time for reflection about all things related to travel.  Here are some of my reflections,

HOLIDAY AIRFARE BARGAINS (NOT!)

Lots of airline come-ons in my inbox starting in November, but all in coach.  I saw only one bargain in Premium Economy this year, and that was on Cathay Pacific and ended after the Thanksgiving weekend.  Zero deals in Business Class.

The coach deals on Qatar are especially good, like Houston to Nairobi for $695 round trip for travel Jan 11 to May 19 next year if you buy by Dec 15.  But I won’t worry if I miss this sale because there is sure to be another on Qatar in a few days or next week, latest.  Qatar economy class is rumored to be pretty good—meaning it is not as uncomfortable as some other airlines—but heck, it’s still coach.

The dearth of deals in PE and Biz Class is made worse for me by the fact that business travel to Johannesburg (JNB) is strong and South African Airways is on the ropes. Both factors mean steady demand for butts in business class to that part of the world.  I go back to the Kruger National Park in South Africa nearly every year, and while coach seats are as little as $880 round trip, I can’t get a business class fare to JNB any more for less than about $4,500, often closer to $5,500.

I’ve flown to Jo’burg countless times since 1991—quite a lot in the last few years—and I’ve never seen it so consistently expensive to fly up front.  I snagged a good Premium Economy fare on Delta for a trip I am making there in Feb-Mar, 2020, but even PE fares have risen dramatically since my purchase date.

TO BUY MILES OR NOT

This time of year American Airlines usually sends me offers to supplement my AAdvantage miles by buying more.  I bought a hundred thousand miles from AA a few years back at a good rate, which miles contributed to an AAdvantage award RDU to Tanzania on Qatar in Business Class.

Sure enough, I got this year’s AA email yesterday, and the top offer is 70% bonus miles if I purchase 100,000-150,000 AAdvantage miles.  But it’s no bargain at $0.032/mile to buy 150,000 ($5,036.38), though with 105,000 bonus miles, that drops it to $0.022/mile.

Still, I wonder, is that a bargain?  I am not sure any more what that total of 255,000 AAdvantage miles buys me based on the past year’s steep award level increases, but certainly not the reasonable mileage award in business on Qatar of several years ago. Instead, for about $5,000 I can usually find a business class fare to South Africa, so why use miles?  And that’s just one example.  I passed on the AAdvantage offer this year.

WEDNESDAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING USED TO BE THE BUSIEST TRAVEL DAY OF THE YEAR

My home Raleigh/Durham Airport (RDU) saw its busiest one-day travel on that Sunday after Thanksgiving at 54,800.  Used to be Wednesday before Thanksgiving was the busiest travel day of the year, but now it’s the Sunday afterward.  I guess that, because of widespread American prosperity, many folks can take off a day or two, or even the whole week of Thanksgiving, which spreads out the demand.

During four decades of flying home from consulting gigs at Thanksgiving, however, it was always Wednesday, and always had to be booked at least six to nine months in advance to get a fare that didn’t make my clients shriek in pain when I sought reimbursement.

RDU WANTS A NONSTOP TO CHINA

Staying with RDU, local business leaders—including many tech company execs—have long sought to bag a direct flight to China. RDU already boasts nonstops to London (AA) and Paris (DL).

But first the airport needs a new runway.  That will be part of an airport master plan for the future that RDU calls “Vision 2040” and includes adding 23 new gates and bringing the rental car and TNCs (Uber, Lyft) to a close-in building within easy walking distance from Terminal 2, which most of RDU’s airlines use.  I am excited about the coming improvements and gung-ho about a possible nonstop to China.

RDU QUARRY QUARREL

The airport’s needs notwithstanding, a controversy took root in the past year regarding property owned by RDU that it wants to lease to a stone quarry operation.  The land is contiguous to heavily-forested Umstead State Park, a popular hiking and biking destination for Triangle residents. Some park advocates don’t like the idea of a quarry, even though it’s entirely on airport property and will supply a much-needed income stream to the airport for several decades before being restored for recreational uses. Unlike highways, airports have no steady federal and state funding, instead relying on periodic, unpredictable federal and state grants.

Our airport has authority to make the quarry deal.  The issue, like many these days, became polarized and over-simplified, with anti-quarry forces ignoring the greater need as well as the overarching economic benefit to the region of RDU.  With airport passenger traffic surpassing ten million per year and contributing $8.5 billion to the region’s economy, RDU is essential to our ability to absorb the growth we are experiencing in this part of North Carolina.

My airfare booking salad

What’s the best way to book airfares? Haven’t sophisticated Internet airfare search tools made travel agents obsolete?  Word on the street touts travel portals like ITA Matrix as the doom of travel agents. For me, at least, it’s just not that black and white.  Agents and portals are all part of my personal solution, and I don’t see that changing a lot.

First, as to the demise of the travel agent sector:  I’ve heard that for decades every time some new computer-based travel booking tool makes its way to the masses, so I’ve learned to be skeptical. Yes, travel agencies have been under fire from both the travel industry and the traveling public since Delta stopped paying commissions in March, 2001, forcing agents to start charging customers fees for issuing tickets.  But agents seem to be hanging on just fine, many even thriving.  Especially those that specialize in business travel.  A friend’s brother recently sold his North Carolina agency, which handles travel for a large bank, for a price I would call a fortune.

I digress.  I can only speak from personal perspective and purely subjective needs in lonely online quests for the best fares and optimal routings.  My persistent airfare searches on multiple sites often make me feel like a squirrel scrounging for nuts, endlessly digging under different trees.  For example, good as Orbitz seemed to be when it first arrived in leveling the fare field to make the choices airline-agnostic, Kayak and others did even better.  At least for a while.

Over time the airline-specific sites upped their game a bit with twists like unique upgrade opportunities.  Delta has become quite clever at targeting my RDU origin market with customized deals aimed at me, a trend Joe Brancatelli wrote about on November 21, 2019 in his “New Rules” piece explaining that public sales are dead.

I still use Kayak and similar sites for reference quests, but often I revert to aa.com or delta.com to book directly if the airline sites match the fares of the broader search of a relatively simple city-pair itinerary.  Booking direct ensures I get the perks, however meager, associated with my elite statuses, as well as automatically entering my full name (correctly spelled), passport details, and TSA Trusted Traveler data.  Most other sites either don’t do that, or I don’t trust them to keep that information secure.

Sites like ITA Matrix excite my squirrelly instincts, providing in just a few minutes of thoughtful queries, insights into booking possibilities that I could imagine, but would take me a lot of burrowing to uncover.

And yet, if these newest open-to-everyone booking tools are so damn good, why is it that my longtime business travel agent is consistently able to find better air travel deals and routings than I can?  The answer, I believe, is that he has tools I do not have, combined with super-sharp experience honed by doing what he does every minute of the day.  Add to that the advantage of the team-sharing experience that his employees bring to the table based on their every-day-all-day hunts for the best deals for their customers, and even the most agile software powering travel portals accessible to me is no match.

(In my experience, that’s true for airfares: My agent almost always equals or beats what I can find. That’s not always so for hotel or car rental bookings, but that’s another story.)

Another thing I am not able to see as a mere mortal are premium cabin deals offered (rarely) to travel agents directly from airlines to improve slack bookings on certain routes and dates. Deeply discounted business fares are uncommon these days, and more’s the pity.  I have been known to flex my travel plans (dates, airlines, routings) to take advantage of such bargains.  Anything to get out of coach!  I usually can’t find these on public portals, so my partner is my travel agent. I always ask if any quiet deal is lurking behind the curtain.

Of course I always book direct if I am looking for an award seat because frequent flyer programs are strictly an airline game.  If I am planning to pay for my ticket, however, then I test every possible online portal to find a good fare and always do that homework on options before contacting my travel agent.  My agent is especially good at finding the least expensive fares and the most comfortable way to go for complex international itineraries, and the booking fees are a pittance compared to the dollar and qualitative value I get in return.

Point is, no one way to book airfares works for me.  Which is fine.  I don’t need to take sides.  Mixing it up gives me confidence that whatever I pay on whatever airline via whatever routing is likely my best option.

Postscript:  Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday period, which included Black Friday, I received a number of what were heralded as great deals from airlines, including Cathay Pacific and Qatar.  However, testing dates and destinations was tedious and didn’t yield many bargains that matched the come-ons except with very long layovers or dates that didn’t work.

In other words, about what I expected. My experience is that real airfare bargains take lots of time and luck to ferret out and are not always connected to a trumpeted sale.

The agony of LAX and SoCal

Regarding a recent trip to Los Angeles I extolled the unexpected pleasure of flying there and the ease of bypassing the hotel front desk, but I left out the torture of having to drive from LAX to Oceanside and back and neglected to detail the misery of dealing with Los Angeles International Airport’s Terminal 3 as I left for home.

SOCAL: YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE EXCEPT BY CAR

My flight had arrived LAX at noon Saturday, but I didn’t get out of the Hertz lot until 1:00 PM due to long queues at all four Hertz exit gates. The fellow manning my gate apologized and explained how rude many renters were ahead of me “trying to steal gas” by lying about their gas tank levels. I couldn’t get away fast enough.

It was exactly 97 miles from LAX to my destination in Oceanside; however, it took me just over three hours of agonizingly slow driving south on I-405 and I-5 to get there on that Saturday afternoon.

I might have flown instead to San Diego. After all, Oceanside is only 40 miles north of San Diego, but the airfares were 65% higher than to LAX, and the creeping-crawling on I-5 north is just as bad.

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Stopped on I-5 crossing Camp Pendleton. At least I had an ocean view.

The slowest stop-and-go traffic was the final 18-19 miles from San Clemente to Oceanside, thanks to I-5 across the Camp Pendleton oceanfront being the sole traffic corridor. The drive is gorgeous in that section because the Interstate hugs the coast, as does the old Santa Fe Railroad corridor (now Amtrak Surfliner commuter rail) between Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT) and San Diego, but the highway congestion is absolutely brutal almost 24/7.

Because of the awful traffic, I was dreading the drive back Sunday afternoon to return my Hertz car. Happily, it took a mere 2 hours and 25 minutes despite a number of stop-and-crawl places and heavy congestion the entire way. God, I hate that drive, one I’ve done many times since my first trip to California in 1964.

Total miles on car, a brand new Chrysler 300S in battleship gray, was 212. Cost with all taxes was $138 for two days. Was shocked a new Chrysler would come without blind spot monitoring, but the backup camera was far and away the clearest, sharpest, brightest I’ve ever seen. The pickup was stupendous, too, and it handled tightly like a Euro car. Comfortable molded seats, which helped my aching pinched nerve. Excellent left and right side visibility made up for the lack of blind spot monitoring. The car was a dream to drive.

However, none of those accolades made up for the agony of the I-5/I-405 traffic.  Thing is, in Southern California there is little alternative to driving.  SoCal is the poster child for suburban living and the joy and freedom of piloting one’s own automobile.  But the dream long ago turned into a nightmare: too many cars, too many people, impossible to build enough roads to keep up.

So why didn’t I take the Amtrak Surfliner commuter rail service?  I studied it hard, but it would have required an Uber from LAX to LAUPT, then wait for the next train, then another Uber from Oceanside rail station to my destination, yet another from there to my overnight accommodation, then another Uber or Lyft back to my Oceanside destination Sunday morning, followed by a ride from there back to the Oceanside rail station, another wait for the next train going north, and finally a Lyft or Uber from LAUPT back to LAX.  That’s six rides to connect to and from the train stations, and a lot of lost time.

Of course driving time was also slow. And more than crawling for three hours to go less than 100 miles, the drive was very stressful both ways.  We went to the moon in six years, but Americans haven’t come up with any real alternative to the freeway in seventy years.

RUNNING THE LAX T3 GAUNTLET IS NO FUN

Arriving at LAX Terminal 3 early Monday morning where my Delta flight to RDU was scheduled to depart, bedlam and third world seediness ruled. For reasons no TSA rep could explain, we were not allowed to walk in the ground level door to enter the security screen lines. We were directed upstairs, but the escalator up was broken, and the single tiny elevator was swamped.

Scores of travelers with their giant luggage loads in tow were waiting angrily for the elevator that never came. In frustration we all walked up the broken escalator, which was one-person narrow. It was a slow process. Especially for me with an excruciatingly painful ruptured disk.

At the top of the stairs we were all directed back DOWN another set of stairs to the exact TSA lines at ground level that they wouldn’t allow us to enter at ground level. It was nuts. I asked a senior TSA supervisor to explain the security rationale, and he just laughed and shook his head, telling me candidly it made no sense whatsoever, and he could not understand why we were not allowed in at ground level if we had boarding passes.

I cleared the TSA PRE line in no time, but my back was now sore as hell from dragging my bag up the broken escalator. Then the dismal long tunnel walk to the center of Terminal 3 and up a working (thank God!) escalator to the even more dismal, worn-out confines of Terminal 3 gates, absolutely wall-to-wall with travelers.

I remember the same broken-down Terminal 3 almost two years ago when I came through with my family returning from Rarotanga. We flew RDU/LAX on Delta, then Air NZ. Delta assured me two years ago that they were in the midst of a massive rebuild of Terminals 2 and 3, and that by Jan, 2020 it would be a magnificent experience. Well, not much appears to have happened in two years to make T3 anywhere near the splendid palace of flying described to me then. It is instead a canker of ugliness and inefficiency, as bad as the LGA environment I blogged about last summer. Every Delta manager here should be sent to work the ramp during mid-summer at Columbia, South Carolina.

The icing on the cake was having to haul my bag up more stairs to the makeshift, tiny SkyClub, swamped with members seeking refuge from the madding crowds below. No escalator. A sign claimed an elevator was available on the opposite side of the food court, but I gave up after searching, but not finding, it and slowly, one step at the time, climbed the staircase.

What an altogether poor flying experience for travelers. If I was in Sofia, Bulgaria or Dakar, Senegal, maybe this would he understandable, but in Los Angeles, USA, definitely not.

I take that back about Dakar Airport. I recently saw an online YouTube video of a flying experience from Dakar, and the airport sparkles with modernity and apparent efficiency, mocking and shaming LAX Terminal 3 and Delta.

Can this really be America? Have we normalized human misery and shabbiness as to be expected at America’s busiest airports? What is wrong with us?

The vanishing hotel front desk

In my previous post I detailed the flying part of a quick trip I made to Oceanside, California to visit a cousin dear to me in declining health. Quick, as in Saturday to Monday, with a Sunday night LAX overnight to be ready for my Monday morning nonstop back to Raleigh.

To my surprise, the best rate available was at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport: $151.08. Pretty good for a full service LAX property.

After returning my rental car Sunday afternoon, I took the Hertz shuttle back to LAX and contacted the Hilton LAX for their shuttle. The hotel bus was supposed to come every 20 minutes, but it was more like 35-40 minutes between buses.

While waiting, I killed time by checking in online at hilton.com and was offered the option of choosing my room. The Hilton website displayed a large number of floor-by-floor room options in a graphic detail that reminded me of choosing a seat on an airline flight.

Some rooms showed the same price I was quoted, while others were more expensive, depending upon the amenities, size, and location.  I had great momentary fun perusing the floors and room sizes before finally selecting room 1224, shown at no extra cost. I really liked the visibility the Hilton website gave me to pick what I wanted, quite the novelty for me.

Hilton.com then asked if I wanted a digital key using my phone. I said yes because I’ve never done one and was curious.  At first Hilton affirmed the digital key, but asked me to stop by the front desk to confirm my ID. However, almost immediately thereafter I was sent a second message saying not to even stop there. Just go directly to my room.

Which I did, bypassing all hotel staff except the shuttle bus driver. As I approached room 1224 I was instructed to turn on Bluetooth and to hold my phone near the door, after which my phone unlocked it with a loud, reassuring CLUNK!  See view of Century Boulevard leading into LAX looking east from my window.

I felt foolishly elated that it worked.  Wow!  It’s a whole new impersonal hotel world.  No front desk needed.  The front desk has been made an anachronism by automation.

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One more picture, this of my room 1224 at the Hilton LAX. I was quite happy with it, a standard, no-frills, but plenty roomy.

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For the rest of the afternoon I felt a bit stunned that I completely bypassed the front desk. Especially given the long lines I noticed there, even at HHonors. That was very convenient, if impersonal.

Not that the entire hotel experience was without human interaction.  I enjoyed two glasses of different California reds and a decent meal Sunday night in the Hilton LAX restaurant (see picture below), all served by an efficient, friendly wait staff. I was too exhausted to venture out. Though I dined alone, it was nearly perfect relaxation after the harrowing drive to and from Oceanside.

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Bypassing the front desk again at 6:50 Monday morning, I made my way to the main entrance shuttle bus back to the airport. I was told buses left at 20 minute intervals, but not on a predictable clock-face schedule. Just show up, last night’s driver had told me, and I wouldn’t have to wait more than 19 minutes.

A long queue was waiting for the small shuttle. Poor planning, I thought, as lots of hotel guests needing to go to LAX must be normal at all hours. It was an airport hotel, after all, and that Hilton has a whopping 1,234 rooms. So why not a bigger bus and more of them?

The bus left when full with another full busload still in line, including me (see pix).

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A second bus appeared right behind and scooped up the rest of us and left at 7:05 AM. So I waited at the hotel 15 minutes, which I judged to be acceptable. However, we still left behind more folks in queue, and I didn’t see a third bus.

En route on the bus, I easily checked out online and was immediately sent an email with my bill.  Thus, I had zero interaction with the front desk start to finish.

The front desk Kabuki dance has become a relic of bygone days.  So how will hotels automate airport shuttle buses?

Oh, to be in First, not Coach

Last weekend I flew to LAX on a Delta frequent flyer award ticket, picked up a Hertz car, and drove south to Oceanside so that I could spend some time with my 87 year old cousin, who is in declining health. She and I have been close since 1964 when she hosted me during my epic cross-country train trip.

I was then 16, and it was my first trip to California. In the ensuing 55 years, I’ve lost count of the scores of times I have flown to California, LAX in particular.

As this was a sudden and unexpected trip, I carefully weighed flying options. Airfares are of course more expensive when you have to go on short notice, and I needed to balance travel dates against other commitments.

San Diego is only 40 miles south of Oceanside, versus 97 miles distant from LAX, but SAN airfares were more expensive by half or more than LAX fares for the dates I needed, as was Long Beach.  Settling on Los Angeles International, I eventually booked a low mileage award on Delta that required a connection through Detroit outbound, but put me on the nonstop LAX/RDU flying home.

My Delta Platinum status allowed me to immediately select seats in Comfort+ on all three flights, and I checked the boxes to stand by for First Class upgrades, though I had little expectation of sitting up front on a low mileage award ticket.

On arrival to RDU Airport at 4:30 AM Saturday for my flight, I was very happily surprised to learn that the Delta system had upgraded me on DL578 RDU/DTW to seat 3B. Very much appreciated, especially with a ruptured disk that was causing great pain in my left leg. I was shocked to see that I was number one on the upgrade list, too.

Limping from the back pain, I boarded earlier than even First Class. The A320(OW) plane appeared to have been fitted with a new cabin.  As usual these days, all the window shades were down, and I quickly opened row 3 shades on both sides before taking my seat.  The huge overhead bins oddly would not stay open without weight (luggage) placed in them. Lacking three hands, I had to fight the constantly re-closing bin door with my elbow in order to lift my bag in.

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The view from 3B on the A320(OW) to Detroit with the shades all closed, as usual.

I asked for a Bloody Mary to anesthetize my back pain, but the flight attendant didn’t listen to my request to bring it with no ice. She was awkward and not so nice about replacing it   No limes catered, either, something I always think is basic.

The vodka soon relieved my back pain a bit, as the 1 hour, 19 minute flight left early.  I dozed contentedly and comfortably most the way to Detroit.

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Took the DTW Airport train to the A18 SkyClub to await my flight to L.A.  Delta has done a good job most places in considerably upgrading the clubs, though some spaces seem impersonal and out of scale.  That club, however, is just right. Not too big, quiet and relaxing, with understated wood tones, indirect lighting, paintings, and furnishings.  Enjoyed the ambiance and a Coke Zero before walking the short distance to gate A12 for LAX.

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The cozy DTW A18 SkyClub.

While waiting to board, I received notice from Delta.com that I had been upgraded again. Maybe it’s my Lifetime Platinum 5.3 million miles that did it. Whatever the Delta capacity control and marketing algorithms did, I sure appreciated the upgrade to a more comfy seat on the nearly five hour flight.  More space to stretch out to abate the relentless leg and hip pain.

On that 737-900ER (739) aircraft to L.A.. The system assigned me 6C in the last row of First, which seatguru.com warned was a limited-recline seat.  I was delighted to find it reclined just fine, and I was able to nap en route.

I mentioned that the upgrade came through automatically on my phone, with no announcement. I guess human discretion by gate agents is no longer required or allowed. Not even an announcement made or a screen to show the lucky few who made the upgrade list.  Just scan the original boarding pass, and a new one is printed, discreetly.  Then, happy trails!

Once again, I was number one on the upgrade list. 5 seats has been open in F on the RDU/DTW flight with a queue of 12, and only 3 seats open in F on DTW/LAX with a queue of 15.

Wonder why this works for me on Delta but never, never, never on AA. Perhaps because I’m Lifetime Platinum on Delta (5.3 mm miles) and only Lifetime Gold on American (1.4 mm miles).

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Delta 737-900 First Class cabin with 24 seats and all the shades closed.

Boarding, I again noticed all the window shades closed. I opened them on both sides of row 6, just as I had on the earlier flight. It was a big first class cabin for a 737, with 24 seats.

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Delta 737-900 after I opened the window shades to make the cabin feel welcoming. This may be only a domestic flight, but those seats are very comfortable, so much more than any in coach.

We left Detroit dead on time and arrived LAX at 12 noon, 15 minutes early. En route I watched an unexpectedly fascinating documentary called “Scotch, the Golden Dream,” which I highly recommend to aficionados of single malt like me. Meanwhile, the lone FA up front killed all 24 of us with kindness, bringing not only full meals, but repeatedly refilling drinks and water from wheels-up to landing.  I kept thinking how nice it was to be in First Class, even more appreciated since I did not expect or hope for it.

Of course the two flights to Los Angeles were on Saturday, not normally a big travel day for Delta Diamonds who usually crowd the upgrade queues.

Monday’s flight home to Raleigh was a different story. I checked in online for my Delta nonstop LAX/RDU to find no upgrade. In fact I was number 17 on the upgrade list, with just 2 open F seats available.  No chance, I thought.  I was back in peon class with the rest of the great unwashed.

Well, almost.  I snagged an aisle seat in the last row of Comfort+, Delta’s third class in the no man’s land between cattle class and first.  I had a good book to read, though, and my Bose noise-canceling headphones to watch movies across country. I was hoping to sleep some of the way, too.

Travelers in Comfort+ get three inches more pitch (distance between rows), plus free alcohol, and a snack tray is whisked through the cabin a couple of times.  Otherwise, one’s bottom is planted on the same narrow and claustrophobic chair as installed in the rest of economy.  Uncomfortably close to one’s neighbor and not conducive to relaxing.

Having been spoiled by Delta delivering a good domestic F product two days before, sitting in Comfort+ was a big letdown even though on just one flight.  A free drink really doesn’t make up the difference in comfort and privacy.

Enduring the sardine-style packaging of humanity, I began to wonder what the “+” in Comfort+ is meant to represent.  Plus what?  The very term “Comfort” is by itself laughably ironic even without the superfluous, absurd “+” sign added.

Maybe Delta marketing geniuses thought the “+” would distract flyers from the meaningless term “Comfort”.  It is edgily insulting to say “Comfort-PLUS”; it feels like Delta is playing us for fools.  A more honest description would be “NQC” for “Not Quite Coach” section, or perhaps “FDE” for “Free Drinks Economy” section. or maybe “MPBNW” for the “Mo’ Pitch But No Width” section.

I call the hypotheticals “sections” to avoid the pretense of the term “class” for Comfort+.  Not much classy about it, really.

Okay, I’ll shut up.  I will take the product because it is slightly better than the back of the plane.  Just saying somebody got paid handsomely to come up with the phony term “Comfort+” and is probably still employed at Delta.

No matter how much lipstick you put on that swine, though, it can’t compare to the comfort and serenity—thanks to private space side to side as well as front to back—of first class. Thanks, Delta, for the upgrades. Much appreciated.

The marvelous Oyster Bar & Restaurant in Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue in Manhattan is an icon of New York City  Its vast public spaces are truly grand, inspiring, and unforgettable. The Oyster Bar & Restaurant, located on the lower level of Grand Central Terminal, is an icon within an icon. It is perhaps the most recognizable and beloved seafood eatery in the country. Starting in the 1960s when I was in high school, I happily dined there more times than I can remember, most recently this past summer.

A little history:  What became the Oyster Bar was first opened as the Grand Central Terminal Restaurant. Although Grand Central Terminal officially opened on February 2, 1913, its opening was celebrated one day prior, February 1, with a dinner at the restaurant, arranged for more than 100 dignitaries and guests.  Thus, the Oyster Bar has been part of GCT since the beginning.  For more than a century it has been a convenient and popular restaurant option for folks passing through Grand Central via train, for visitors to the station, and for people working in the Midtown East area.

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Grand Hall of Grand Central Terminal.  The Oyster Bar is in the level below.

According to Wikipedia, Rafael Guastavino designed the Oyster Bar “[b]ased on the Catalan vault, he created the Guastavino tile, a ‘Tile Arch System’, patented in the United States in 1885, which was used for constructing robust, self-supporting arches and architectural vaults using interlocking terracotta tiles and layers of mortar. His work appears in numerous prominent projects designed by major architectural firms in New York and other cities of the Northeast. Guastavino tile is found in some of New York’s most prominent Beaux-Arts landmarks and in major buildings across the United States. It is also used in numerous architecturally important and famous buildings with vaulted spaces.”

His arched and vaulted ceilings covered in terracotta tiles became emblematic of the Oyster Bar experience.

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Oyster Bar & Restaurant in Grand Central Terminal, Manhattan

In fact, the restaurant is famed as much for its unique architecture and location as for its food.  Its prime location in the heart of a busy train terminal allowed the restaurant to flourish because of a constant customer stream, heavily patronized as it was and is by both locals and transients. The archway in front of the restaurant is also famous for an acoustical quirk making it a whispering gallery by which someone standing in one corner can hear someone standing in the opposite corner perfectly no matter how softly they speak.

I’m a shameless collector of rail and airline menus as a memory of dining experien,ces, good and terrible when traveling, and so this summer I asked the Oyster Bar’s management if I could keep one of that day’s menu. The Oyster Bar prints new menus daily and dates them, as you can see from this photo:

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Back home in Raleigh, I recently ran across a 1977 Oyster Bar menu which I kept during a period when I used to dine there often, the early days of the Carter administration. I lived in Munich and managed the European operations for a large NYC-based student charter flight company 1975-76. My job took me back periodically to New York for meetings, and I always dined at least once each visit at the wonderful Oyster Bar. On this occasion in 1977, I was in Manhattan to negotiate terms of an overdue bonus.

The very next year, in 1978, under Alfred Kahn’s leadership, Congress passed the airline deregulation act, enacted partly due to fear of an industry debacle like the Penn Central Railroad collapse. The thriving student charter flight industry that I had so deeply been part of vanished quickly thereafter, but it sure was fun and like the wild, wild West in 1975-77.

Forgive me, for I digress.  Take a gander at the May, 1977 Oyster Bar menu and compare the prices between then and July, 2019, 42 years later.  Note the basic menu style and format have changed very little in four decades.  Still the big OYSTER MENU herald with three main columns announcing Appetizers, Raw Bar (oysters), and Today’s Catch.  The same layout, but a vast difference in prices.

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Wow, raw oysters then were 38, 42, 50, and 65 cents each (“Per Piece” on both menus), but now are $2.75 to $3.95 each.  From cheapest then to most expensive now, that’s a difference of more than ten times. Even from most expensive then to least cost now, a difference of 5.5 times.

Raw clams have never been as popular as raw oysters, although I love clams almost as much.  In 1977 Littlenecks went for 34 cents each and Cherrystones for 39 cents.  Today both are priced at $2.15 apiece, 60 cents less than the cheapest 2019 oyster, or about 5.5 times more expensive than 1977.

Other items haven’t become that much more expensive.  In 1977 lobsters were $8.65/pound, but have risen to $30.95 in 2019, only 3.4 times as costly. Lobsters have always been dear, even in season, as both these menus are.

Clam chowder—Manhattan or New England—has always been a mainstay.  In 1977 a bowl was $1.25.  Nowadays, the New England chowder will set you back $8.50, nearly seven times what it was then.

Maryland soft-shell crabs were $9.95 in 1977, compared to just $32.95 today, merely  3.3 times more.

Another menu staple, broiled Bluefish filet, has risen from $5.95 to $26.95, four and a half times as much. Bluefish still holds a top spot on the “Today’s Catch” list, too.

Broiled whole flounder went up more than bluefish at $29.95 today versus $4.95 then, a six-fold increase.

Like soft-shelled crabs and lobster, wild salmon was always expensive, with Columbia River King Salmon going for $9.50 in 1977 compared to Alaska Red King Salmon $34.95 in 2019, a price jump of 3.7 times.

In 1977 restaurateurs had not yet adopted the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp” cocktail, and thus the menu lists “shrimp cocktail” for $3.95.  The “jumbo” shrimp cocktail on the contemporary menu goes for $22.05, making it 5.6 time most costly.  Gotta wonder if that extra nickel on the peculiar price is a royalty payment to the marketing genius who came up with (and probably trademarked) the “jumbo” shrimp moniker.

On the back of the older menu the Oyster Bar impressively lists “American White Wines” in mostly single digit prices, though the David Bruce Chardonnay was $28.60. Apparently in 1977 management supposed Americans would drink only whites with seafood.  No vintages at all, but note the stars for awards at various California wine fairs.  A few champagnes appear, too.

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1977 Oyster Bar wine list on reverse side of menu

The 2019 Oyster Bar wine menu is a separate book with expensive reds, whites, and Champagnes.  The backside of the menu lists only beer and cocktails, with the usual mixed drink and spirits suspects.  Personally, I liked the 1977 white wine list, and I would not have trouble finding a modern David Bruce Chard for $28-35, though I can’t comment on the quality compared to what the label was offering 42 years ago.

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Just part of our meal.  More oysters came later, and key lime pie

My wife and I enjoyed a bottle of a modest Cava with our feast at the Oyster Bar on July 18 of this year, yet even with a generous tip for the outstanding service, the bill came to just $188.14.  That isn’t peanuts, but for fresh shellfish for two in a gorgeous bastion of Midtown Manhattan restaurants, including wine and service, not bad, not bad!  Especially in such a beautiful setting.  We can hardly wait for the next time.

Hyatt or Airbnb in Vancouver?

Vancouver is one of the world’s loveliest and most livable cities. That is, if you have lots of money.  Housing costs are second highest in North America (after San Francisco), but Vancouver is 50th in income, resulting in—on average—more than 30% of income going to pay for one’s residence.

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Nice view of the Vancouver harbor from one of the Hyatt’s 34th floor meeting rooms while attending the 25th Rail-Volution transit conference.

Planning to attend the annual Rail-Volution transit and land use conference to be held in Vancouver, I wondered how those stats would impact my accommodation costs and whether a short term rental would be cheaper, but just as comfortable and convenient, as a hotel.  Going out two days early before the conference hotel rate kicked in enabled me to set up an experiment to find out which was a better choice for business, both quantitatively (costs) and qualitatively. 

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My Airbnb condo in Vancouver (22nd floor)

Turns out the choices were equally good. Through Airbnb I booked a 22nd floor one bedroom condo with a stunning view of downtown, for the first two nights, and then moved to an 18th floor room at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver, the official conference hotel for Rail-Volution, for four nights.

Costs were nearly the same: US$263/night including all taxes and fees at the Hyatt (conference rate, mind you) and US$251/night all-in through Airbnb. Only difference was prepayment required for Airbnb.

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SkyTrain station to downtown Vancouver is just outside the YVR Airport international arrivals.
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SkyTrain from the airport was very convenient, quick, comfortable, safe, reasonable.

Parking was not necessary and therefore not compared, thanks to the superb Vancouver transit network.  The very convenient SkyTrain (called the Canada Line) station just outside YVR Airport international arrivals goes directly to the city center, and it was an easy three or four block walk from there to either the Airbnb location or to the Hyatt, both on Burrard Street (the main drag) in the CBD. I walked most places thereafter because central Vancouver is, well, so walkable, and I took transit buses and trains to places more distant. Thus I had no need of a rental car or place to park one.

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My better three-quarters, who accompanied me for the first two days, relaxes on the terrace of our 22nd floor Airbnb condo in downtown Vancouver. Note Hyatt in the background.

Checking into the Airbnb was a breeze.  I received a text number for the host in advance and let him know when leaving the airport on the SkyTrain from the airport.  It was a Thursday afternoon.  He met me in a coffee shop in the building and took me up to the flat, demonstrated how to use everything, how to lock up, and ways to get in and out of the building using an electronic key fob.

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Night view from our Airbnb condo with Hyatt in the distance

The condo was immaculate, comfortable, well-furnished, with every amenity of a hotel room plus a few more, like a kitchen and a washer-dryer in the small but adequate pantry. As the pictures indicate, the small terrace—just big enough for two to sit comfortably—was perfect for relaxing and city-gazing with a glass of wine.  The bed did its job admirably well, as did the shower.  HVAC was minimal because Vancouver is usually cool and often rainy, but this was a hot period.  Plenty of fans and an in-window AC unit did the trick to keep things at the right temp.

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Oops! No Airbnb? But that’s our entrance!

Getting in and out of the building required some unexpected furtive moves because the building has a “NO AIRBNB” policy, something I was not aware of until arrival. Egress and ingress discretion therefore meant using a different elevator to a convenient side or back door rather than entering or leaving via the main entrance which passed a desk staffed with watchers.  I didn’t care, and it was not a problem.  The place was perfect, and I would stay there again if returning to Vancouver on business.

Had I wished to cook for myself, directly across Burrard Street was an urban two-story grocery, and next to that an elegant wine store (alcohol isn’t sold in grocery stores in Vancouver). Lots more nearby services and stores lined the downtown streets.  I felt completely at home in the Airbnb condo and frankly hated to leave it.  Bit I did, of course, and rolled my luggage about four blocks up Burrard to the Hyatt.

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Hyatt Regency Vancouver on Burrard Street.

Checked in to the Hyatt Regency Vancouver Saturday about noon after I pre-registered online and asked for 1230p. Got an email at 1130a saying my room (1818) was ready. I have become spoiled with this kind of good service from Hyatts.

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Hyatt Regency Vancouver room 1818, very spacious, clean, comfortable.

The Hyatt Regency Vancouver is a grand 34-floor hotel: spacious, clean, updated rooms and bathrooms.  I was impressed at how neat and well-maintained the public spaces and elevators were.  On getting to the room, I was wowed at its size, so much roomier and more open than most, especially considering it was just a cookie-cutter double with two double beds.

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Dim desk light, but modern and attractive.

Two nits were immediately apparent about room 1818:  First, it was too dark. Not enough lights. Desk lamp was attractive, but provided insufficient illumination. May not be evident from the photo, but only illuminated about 40% of the table space, making it impossible to read anything on the right side of the desk.  Ditto for other lamps except for the bathroom, which was blindingly lit.

Second nit was that the supposedly double beds were too narrow to sleep two adults. Looked like 1.5 single bed size. Appeared to be typical euro doubles, which Joe Brancatelli says are about 20cm narrower than US doubles.  Maybe because it’s Canada?  That aside, the beds were extremely comfortable to sleep on.

Great staff, though! Example: Pouring rain the following morning, but the very friendly concierge guys instantly provided me an umbrella to walk a half block.  When I tried to return it, they to keep it as long as I needed it.  I did.

34 floors, but only one ice machine, and that’s on the 4th floor. However, the 4th floor ice room has three or four standard hotel ice machines, side-by-side.

Which was best?  They were equal, in my opinion.  I loved the Hyatt, as I have always loved well-run, well-maintained hotel properties where I have probably laid my head more often than at home since I was an adult.  I am a veteran hotel denizen; it’s in my travel blood..

But the urban Airbnb I rented was a surprisingly good alternative to the Hyatt.  Surprising to me because I just like hotels, and this particular Hyatt combined a lot of great qualities, including a very friendly, sincere staff radiating authentic Canadian warmth and hospitality inside the tight, well-kept property.  High praise for both in terms of cost and livability.  I’d happily stay at either next time.