Covid travel aftershocks

June 30, 2021

RDU begs for customers who are already there!

RDU Airport produced a cool video to get people back to the airport…but people are ALREADY back to Raleigh/Durham, with long queues everywhere—so many flyers that the airlines can’t handle the numbers and are canceling flights (AA by 1%).  So maybe RDU should be airing a PSA that says: Don’t come! 

Rental car craziness

Even if you get where you’re going but need a rental car, you’re in for a shock: no cars or stratospheric rates, as I rediscovered trying to book a car in Billings, Montana

For early July, Budget, Avis, & Hertz were all $900-1500/week in Billings for a “full size” car, or about $130/day (all-in) and Costco Travel has zero cars.  Checked Turo, and even a Kia Sportage is $130/day, plus-plus.  So I’m renting from a local Billings used car company, which is price-gouging me in their own way. 

After verbally quoting me $45/day for a mid-size, they told me when I called to reconfirm a week before traveling that they didn’t promise any size for that price and in fact I’d get a Ford Fiesta (about right if you want one for each foot), but that a mid-size car is $70/day plus taxes, which gets the price to $540/week.  When I asked why they were jerking me around, the manager basically said because he can.  “With rental cars so high, we had to go up,” a tacit admission that he lied to me and arbitrarily changed my rate.

“Where are you going, anyway?” he asked.

“To Absarokee,” I replied, which is a small town about 80 miles southwest of Billings.

“NO OFF-ROAD!” the man screamed. “You can’t take our cars off-road!”

I had no intention of going off-road and told him so. Absarokee, Montana isn’t Zion National Park in Utah, I patiently explained.  I had already re-checked Avis, Hertz, Budget, Alamo, Costco Travel Rental Cars, and Turo, and I knew nothing was available, so didn’t want to jeopardize this deal, even though the fellow had no skill at customer service.  I decided to grin and bear it.  Now I am in a white 2016 Chevy Malibu with 78,000 miles on the odometer, pictured just below.

And do you think that when car fleets are finally back to pre-pandemic normal that the rates will come down as well?  Think again, pilgrim!  Meantime, I’m spending nearly $1100 for two weeks in a beater in Montana (“NO OFF-ROAD!), which is twice the airfare RDU/BIL.

Flying Raleigh to Billings (my real-time report from last Sunday)

RDU airport was jammed at 415am Sunday.

TSA no longer takes my temp or wants my boarding pass, just scanned my driver’s license, which I inserted with unwashed fingers into a machine used by hundreds of other passengers with unwashed fingers. The agent asked that I remove my mask for a second before allowing me to proceed.

I was again glad to be in the short PRE line, but, even so, I was randomly selected to go through the sci-fi hands-over-your-head x-ray machine. It rejected me, resulting in a cursory pat-down by a burly TSA guy. I don’t think he found an overweight, short 73 year old to be much of a threat.

My luggage was also rejected on the x-ray belt. I figured my stash of 4 minibottles of Finlandia vodka had raised suspicion, but it turned out that a small bottle of metamucil triggered the closer look. The digestive aid powder was tested for explosives.  It passed, just as it was designed to do.

I’m always irked that RDU has no flight board at the bottom of the post-TSA screen escalators to direct me left or right in the terminal. I wandered to the right and found a screen that said my flight was departing from the opposite end, naturally.

The RDU Delta SkyClub had opened at 400am (as it does daily), a welcome respite from the growing hordes spreading the CV-19 Delta variant. I enjoyed the relative quiet for 45 minutes munching on a bagel and sipping juice before sauntering back to gate D5 for boarding.

Even in first class I had to wait for wheelchairs, “those needing extra time boarding,” active military in uniform, and families with small children before my turn came.

Seated in 1B. Plane full and asking for volunteers. Leaving on time. Then 3+ hr layover until Billings flight.

RDU/MSP was oversold with no empty seats but left early (well-managed boarding).

Connecting in Minneapolis it looks as busy as pre-Covid everywhere. SkyClubs are crowded.

But this flight to Billings is announced as not full. (But it was full when we departed.)

And not on time because one of the cleaners, a young woman from Somalia with no English, passed out while working the airplane. A little disconcerting. Hope she doesn’t have Covid and hope she wasn’t overcome by the cleaning chemicals.

I was offered beverages (I ordered a Bloody Mary) and a snack box out of Raleigh.  Just got a Coke Zero to Billings.

I wore a mask every second from entering RDU in Raleigh to exiting the Billings airport except when sipping on something wet.  With the deadly Delta variant on the rise, I was happy that everyone did the same.  I was also relieved that no mask-hater incidents occurred on my flights.

The gorgeous Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

It’s great to be in Montana again, but like the rest of the American West, it’s dry as a bone and hot as blue blazes. Though the heat and drought aren’t apparent in pictures, perhaps because nothing has yet caught fire here.

Nonetheless, it’s a tinderbox, and with the steady wind, a spark could set off a major conflagration. Extreme fire hazard may not thwart Montanan free spirit, though. Fireworks haven’t yet been canceled anywhere. I overheard several employees at a gas station at rural Park City excitedly discussing the best place to see local Independence Day fireworks and couldn’t help opening my mouth to ask if that wasn’t a bad idea. I got universal scowls in reply before one woman commented, “Nothing will stop our Fourth of July celebration of America’s freedom here in Montana!”

Yeah, “freedom” to burn up the environment which belongs to all of us, I thought. It was a sad moment.

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