Author: William A. Allen III

Driving, not flying, to Kruger National Park

As my many previous blog posts evince, I love going to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. After my first Kruger visit in 1991 when I was working in South Africa, I was hooked for life.

I am going again in late February.  Usually I fly to the Kruger from Johannesburg, but it looks like I might have to drive this time instead.

Back in the early 90s I lived in Johannesburg and had a leased car, so I frequently drove the five hour trip to reach the Park whenever I wanted to visit.  Since then, however, I fly to Jo’burg (JNB) and catch a connecting flight to the Kruger.

The only way to get there by air from Johannesburg is on South African Express Airways.

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SA Express ERJ bound for Johannesburg awaits passenger boarding at Skukuza Airport.

SA Express flies from Jo’burg to two airports accessing the Kruger:  Modern Mpumalanga Nelspruit/Kruger International Airport (MQP) opened in 2002, and charming little Skukuza Airport (SZK) dates from 1958.  Skukuza is tiny and beautiful (voted the world’s prettiest airport by Forbes in 2018 after a ten year rebuild).

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Skukuza Airport waiting area is open to the African wilderness.

SZK is actually inside the Kruger Park, so I am already there when we touch the tarmac.  From MQP I can be in the Park in about 45 minutes after picking up my rental car.

SA Express, with its small fleet of RJs that serves domestic markets in South Africa, holds a monopoly on the MQP and SZK routes. Like big brother South African Airways, SA Express is wholly owned and managed by the government.  Unlike big brother, however, SA Express has no competition on the routes it flies.

The fact that SA Express is the sole means of flying between Johannesburg and the Kruger National Park has never bothered me because the service has always been reliable and the connecting fares reasonable (about $250 round trip JNB to MQP, and around $300 from JNB into more convenient SKZ).

Never bothered me, that is, until now.  Seems SA Express, like big brother SAA, may be close to collapse.  Recent (late January, 2020) media accounts state matter-of-factly that years of mismanagement have brought both the big and little state-run airlines to this point:

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SA EXPRESS

 

And this January 23rd piece details a rancorous dispute between SA Express and one creditor and clearly explains the problem baby brother has with alliance partner SAA:

 

“The fact that national carrier SAA has been placed in business rescue [bankruptcy] is risking the viability of another state-owned airline, SA Express, according to court documents filed last week. …

“The documents … reveal that while SA Express and SAA are separate businesses, SA Express is a creditor of SAA. Business rescue practitioners of SAA have confirmed this.

 “SA Express is an alliance partner of SAA, and is dependent on it for code sharing and related services. ‘SAA sells tickets on behalf of SA Express and pays SA Express once passengers have travelled,’ Ziegler’s affidavit reads.

 “According to [the] affidavit, SAA owed SA Express approximately R20m [about $1.4 million], before the national carrier was placed in business rescue in December 2019.

 “Three creditors have filed separate liquidation applications, SA Express owes them more than R34m [about $2.4 million], the affidavit showed.”

On top of which, the South African Auditor-General’s reported that SA Express lost R590m (over $41 million) for the 2018/19 financial year.

Reading all these reports caused me more than abstract angst because of my upcoming Kruger National Park visit in February.  I fly Delta to Johannesburg, with onward flights booked and paid for from Johannesburg to Skukuza via SA Express.

Since the SA Express financial problems indicate the strong possibility that my JNB/SZK flights will be canceled, I thought a backup car rental would be prudent.  A few keystrokes at the Avis website did the trick.  Now if the worst happens, I will be driving an Avis car on the five hour overland journey from Johannesburg airport to Skukuza.

Just like I used to do in 1991.

Air travel video “trip reports”

“He’s no David Attenborough.”

That was the totality of my wife’s dismissive commentary after watching one of the thousands of air travel “trip reports” on YouTube.  Her words trailed off as she hurriedly hoofed it from the room, clearly peeved that I had wasted her time by inviting a look.

She’s right, of course.  The amateurish nature of many YouTube vids can be awfully grating.

However, before choosing an airline, class of service, or route I haven’t flown before, I do my homework.  Lately I’ve begun supplementing my research beyond blogs, seatguru.com, sites like Points Guys, and similar sources by taking a deeper dive into video trip reports.

Ubiquitous YouTube flight reviews are nothing new, but I ignored them until recently.  Then I found I enjoyed one by Paul Lucas, prompting me to poke around for others.

Who knew there were so many?  See my list below of 26 in the pantheon of air travel trip report videographers.

It’s such a popular thing to do that there are even videos on how to make a trip report.

My curiosity fueled, I binge-watched off and on for two months.  After that immersion, some of my takeaways:

  • Every flight, every airline, every route, and every aircraft seems to be covered by someone.
  • It’s easy to find what you want by querying reviews every which way: by vlogger, by airline, by route, and/or by class of service.
  • In most cases, multiple reviews exist for everything.  For example, I stopped counting after finding 300 YouTube trip report videos just for TAP Air Portugal.
  • I reached a point of diminishing returns after watching more than five or six videos of whatever I was looking for because vloggers seem to draw much the same conclusions about the airline, aircraft, route, and service they are reviewing.
  • Some vloggers, like Paul Lucas, promise to be honest, and Lucas, at least, reveals when he gets discounts or freebies.
  • Most trip report videos cover the entire experience from airport check-in to lounge to boarding to in-flight experience (seats, meals, IFE, etc.) to arrival at the destination airport.
  • The majority of reports review business class, but there are loads of economy class reviews, too.  Not many reviews of international first class since it is going the way of the dodo.
  • Most trip reports are 12-20 minutes, with a few shorter and not many longer.
  • The cinematography and editing on most range from  pretty good to extremely well done, and in some cases nearly professional.

POSITIVES

I am a fan of the Paul Lucas “Wingin’ It!” posts because his voiceover descriptions are not grating like some, and his review elements are consistent.

I found the trip reports in economy to be especially interesting.  Maybe that’s because I hope to discover a coach cabin with tolerable seating and decent service on very long-haul international flights. (I’m still looking.)

I most enjoyed the ones with no talking. That is, the nonverbal, captioned reports appeal to me more than most of the voiceovers.

Most video trip reports are useful and entertaining to some degree.

All the videos add to or reinforce what I know about business and economy flying, particularly premium cabin experiences on airlines I have not flown, like Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Air, that sometimes offer discounted business fares.

Many of the vloggers post what they paid and how they wangled the fare.  I discovered, for example, that booking directly on the KLM site is the cheapest way to get to Johannesburg in business class and is via Kenya Air. The Google ITA Matrix site doesn’t tell me that.

Paul Lucas masters low premium cabin fares by using VPNs that don’t reveal American or British origin. Seems legal, and better than what I can find. Others reveal similar tricks that save considerable money on Business Class fares.

NEGATIVES

Some trip reports are terrible.  Just poorly done and biased.  Some are embarrassing to view.

The videos always care more about the food than I do.  I don’t expect the Beluga caviar I used to get in the eighties on Singapore Air in First Class.

On the other hand, the reports never seem to care enough about the wines.  Any old red or white seems palatable to all the vloggers, no matter what swill is being poured.  They don’t appreciate the differences among Champagne served, either.

And they always harp on the amenity kits.

I mean, amenity kits?  Really?  I’ve never seen the contents of one that amazed me: toothbrush, toothpaste, eyeshades, earplugs, cheap socks, sometimes a comb, weird body lotions I’ll never use, once in a while a flimsy razor and minuscule tube of shaving cream.  Useful stuff mostly, but not worthy of a video review.

Never once did I unzip a kit to find a Mexican Red-Legged Tarantula crawling out onto my hand.  Now that would be a surprise.

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Let alone find something outstanding in an amenity kit, like a solid gold coin.

How about at least a passcode for free in-flight wifi?

Another gripe: The vloggers seem predisposed to liking the flights they aim to review.  That is to say, I don’t recall seeing a report framed with much objectivity or skepticism.  Instead, reviewers are altogether too effervescent about the whole experience (“Oh boy, I am flying in QATAR’S NEW Q SUITE TODAY, THE BEST IN THE WORLD!!!!”).

Spare me, please, the histrionics.  Just give me the experiential facts.

Sometimes a reviewer will comment vaguely about the amount of legroom in coach or business, but specifics like pitch and seat width elude the videographers.  It would be useful to have such information incorporated into reports as well a comparative analysis to other airline and aircraft cabin layouts.

I observed, too, that reviewers tend to critique the interior colors of airplane cabins, in my view only an abstract element of a flight’s overall experience.  I am more interested in seat comfort, privacy, and on-board service than the shade of gray on the bulkhead.

Overall, most video trip reports only focus on a few elements important to me, such as flight attendant demeanor. I remember, for instance, that a Cathay Pacific cabin crew in Business Class HKG/ORD several years ago was cold, remote, and the service perfunctory. That has stayed with me much more than the exemplary privacy and comfort of the Cathay Business Class cabin.

So which vloggers are reliable and for what purpose, if at all?

Well, all the videos have some utility.  The superficiality of most trip reports do not prevent me from seeing firsthand the check-in procedures, lounges, boarding procedures, cabin layouts, amenities, and on-board service of many airlines, airplanes, and routes. I’ve also learned when to fast-forward through sections of the YouTube productions that are boring or of little relevance to my interests.

The ubiquity I mentioned above is itself quite valuable: The sheer number of video trip reports is astonishing, enabling me to harvest the collective wisdom of the crowded field.

I worry that airlines will ban such video reports.  A number of the productions posted mention being told by airline personnel to cease filming, and some vloggers have apparently been banned by some airlines.  Even with trip report flaws and shortcomings, I’d hate to lose the insights.

Here’s a cursory list of trip report videographers (merely a representative few as opposed to recommended; no URLs, but they are easy to find; VO means voiceover, to distinguish from reviewers who use only captions):

  • Wingin’ It! by Paul Lucas (voiceover, UK, also reviews trains, easygoing style)
  • The Luxury Travel Expert (captions, reviews hotels, resorts, and travel locations as well as air)
  • Sam Chui (VO)
  • Josh Cahill (VO, reviews all classes)
  • When I Travel The World (VO)
  • Nicholas Perez (VO, American, grates on me)
  • Nonstop Dan (VO, young, American)
  • Seat61 (captions, strictly rail, all excellent)
  • David’s been here David Hoffman (VO, sounds American, reviews lots of economy as well as business)
  • Casey Neistat (VO, American, young and brash, his fans include Wesley Snipes, other celebs)
  • The German Guys Air Travel (VO auf Deutsch)
  • Dennis Bunnik (Aussie, VO)
  • Soumendra Jena (VO, young, Indian, edgy)
  • The Points Guy UK (VO, young, 4 guys review 4 classes on same flight–really liked the contrasting and thoughtful videos)
  • Making It Happen Vlog (VO, quirky, young couple, fancy editing, good music, sound German)
  • Stay Classy Vlog (VO, Danish, young)
  • Ben Morris (VO, UK, young, Flight Fox)
  • Klailea (very young, American)
  • ITGC (India, young)
  • wpbstars.com (captions, short)
  • Flight Report Production (captions)
  • Silicon Valley Girl (VO, young)
  • Air Traveler (captions, well done)
  • Kara & Nate (VO, American couple)
  • My Trips (captions)
  • Flight Experience (captions)

“Papa’s got a brand new bag”

Actually, Papa’s got two brand new bags, with a tip of the hat to James Brown’s classic 1965 hit.

Musing about holiday gifts last month, I narrowed down the search for a replacement of my twenty year old Hartmann two-wheel roller to two-wheelers made by Zero Halliburton and Briggs & Riley (I am not a fan of spinners).  The old Hartmann has served me well, but is showing its age, as evident in these pictures:

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It was a tough call to choose between ZH and B&R. I finally decided to buy both, justifying the decision by sharing the bags with my wife.  I didn’t know which I’d like better for functionality and durability, and this way my wife and I have two “forever” bags we can use when we fly together.

Here are two views of the new Zero Halliburton (I fancied the brilliant red ZH available in the same model, but it was $50 more, so opted for the classic brushed aluminum that made the brand famous):

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It was an easy decision to buy both bags since I eventually found appealingly low prices. I got the Briggs & Riley from ebags.com (Amazon was nearly $100 more for the same model). Zero Halliburton’s best prices are on the ZH website, and the company had a deep discount sale going on to clear inventory of current models before launching newly designed cases in late January (2020).

Two pictures of the new Briggs & Riley (I liked the olive color, and it didn’t cost extra):

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When the new pieces arrived, I first measured them to compare with my old Hartmann, which is 22 x 15 x 10.  The Zero Halliburton is 21 x 15 x 8, and the Briggs & Riley is 21 x 14 x 9.  Doesn’t sound like much of a dimensional difference, but both the new pieces are quite a bit smaller than the Hartmann I’ve depended on for years, as can be readily seen from these pictures:

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Initial impressions:  While the two new ones are the legal size, the Hartmann has never been challenged by any airline anywhere and fits just fine in most every overhead compartments (excepting the Lilliputian overhead bins on some first gen RJs, which won’t take the other two, either). Of course the Hartmann holds more, just as it appears it would, so though I’m happy to have two bags that are “legal” size, I’m disappointed they are tinier than my old reliable two-wheeler.  Here’s what they look like when open:

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The February 2020 issue of Consumer Reports gives Briggs & Riley the top spot for carryon bags, with an overall satisfaction score of 92 and best in five categories measured: ease of carrying, wheelability, ease of packing, durability, and stowability.

I cannot account for why Zero Halliburton isn’t listed in the 21 carryon luggage brands (32 for checked bags) unless ZH was deemed too esoteric or costly.  If Zero Halliburton was omitted due to expense, then I find it curious, as the ZH and B&R bags were close in price.

Next month an old friend is joining me for another trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa (see many posts about previous Kruger trips at www.allenonafrica.com). After nearly 30 years of frequently visiting the park, I have my routine down pat for 12-14 days and nights.

Knowing I am going to do laundry once or twice while there, I usually pack 6-7 of the basics (boxers, socks, tees, shirts), plus the clothes I wear to fly over. I pack one extra pair of khakis for a total of two, counting the pair I wear over. I always take two pairs of shoes, one of mesh sandals (which I pack) and the other running shoes (to wear going over and back). I do not pack outerwear, instead wearing a light jacket going and returning.

From experience I know that all of those items, plus my toiletries and a few other things, will fit into the Hartmann two-wheeler. So as I pondered the big size difference between the old Hartmann and the two new carryons, it occurred to me to test the new bags against what I always put in the Hartmann.

The Zero Halliburton appears to have the smallest interior and does not have the special compression technology built into the Briggs & Riley.  Thus I decided the ZH would be the acid test.  I assembled all the usual Kruger trip clothing and shoes to see if they’d fit, the only concession being to pack six, rather than seven, of the basic articles. Here are the results:

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The good news is that it all fit with a little room left for a couple of baseball caps for sun shade.  The two halves of the Zero Halliburton closed without forcing it.

However, the other items I usually throw in the Hartmann suitcase won’t fit in the Halliburton.  Things like my toiletries, reading material, reference books, Kruger maps, vitamins and medications (e.g., anti-malarial drugs), and binoculars.

But since I always take a second “personal items” bag—a small backpack—most of the items will instead fit in that, along with travel documents, Bose noise-canceling headphones, clothesline and clothespins for drying laundry, and such.

The smaller volume available forced me to pare down what I have always taken.  My friend is packing a pair of field glasses with stabilizing technology far superior to my 1990s model Nikon, so that will stay in Raleigh, as will my beloved, but bulky “Robert’s Birds of Southern Africa” (I found an abridged version that is slim and light instead).

Kruger trips, always 12-14 days, are normally the outer limit of my time away.  Therefore, the outcome of my experiment in packing is all good. If the new bags work for the Kruger, then they will be fine and dandy for my usual three, four, or five night business trips, even with business attire packed (yes, I still wear a coat and tie on business).  I’m jazzed to start using my new Briggs & Riley and Zero Halliburton bags!

Holiday travel gifts

GIVE ME BOSE WITH WIRES, THANK YOU VERY MUCH

My wife spent a week in Ireland over Thanksgiving, traveling via Aer Lingus, and I loaned her my aging, but still perfect Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-canceling headphones. Like me, she found them to be indispensable.  The over-the-ear wired model continues to be my top choice. Personally, I agree completely with David Rowell in The Travel Insider recent assessment that the myriad of features of other models and brands are tripe. And who needs Bluetooth?  David is right that it’s a pain, a technology that never got easier to use once introduced.

I wanted to buy my wife headphones like mine for Christmas, but Bose doesn’t make them anymore. The new models with all the unnecessary features hover around $300.  The discontinued model QuietComfort 15 are so much in demand that new ones sell for as much as $600 on Amazon.  After rooting around a bit online, I found a like-new used Bose QuietComfort 15 for $88 delivered, also from Amazon.

So-called “renewed” Bose model 15s seem to be selling for $150-180, but availability and pricing seems to be highly dynamic.  I checked Amazon for 10 days running, and prices were all over the place for used model 15s.

I GAVE MY HEART TO HARTMANN

As a Christmas gift to myself, which roller bag to buy to replace my faithful old two-wheel Hartmann?  Spinners are the rage, but they enrage me.  Those damn four wheels consume space and weight that could be used for stuff to pack, and the wheels often dangle out of airplane overhead compartments and prevent proper closure.

Trouble is, Hartmann has apparently discontinued my bag, which is airline “legal” (22 x 14 x 9 in) and suits me.  If I could, I would order a duplicate, but I cannot find the specific one.  This Briggs and Riley looks like the only bag that comes close, but it seems a bit smaller, and the cheapest price I can find is $400.

Another great option would be a Zero Halliburton bag.  Turns out they make a two-wheeler called the Zero Halliburton Geo Aluminum 3.0-Carry-on 2-Wheel Travel Case, just what the doctor ordered, and the right dimensions:  21 x 15 x 8.  Well, perfect except for the expense: $680 at Amazon.

Darned  impressive specs and features, though:  Made in America of anodized aluminum (strong as steel but only one-fourth the weight). Double-rib design for strength and durability. Three-stage dual-button handle system for quicker release for both left- and right-handed travelers (I’m a southpaw). Two TSA-accepted combination locks integrated into the draw-bolt latches. Seals airtight. Piano hinge to keep the shells of each case in alignment and to add additional strength to the seal. Two compartments with flat panels to hold clothes securely. Stain-resistant lining that’s non-abrasive to clothes. Global tracking anywhere in the world.

Pining for a Zero Halliburton, I found the same model direct from the maker for “just” $595. The price is still a sticking point for me, so I haven’t succumbed to my desire for the classic piece. Yet, anyway.

I am not wedded to any brand, Hartmann, ZH, or other.  Just want a 22 x 14 x 9, reasonably durable carryon two-wheel roller, not a four-wheel spinner.  Don’t care about color or brand (caveat: no pink polka dot bags, please).  Any advice from readers?  Many thanks in advance.

Before leaving luggage and associated doodads that go into it, let me put in a plug for a company that Joe Brancatelli pointed me to in his piece on bags. I have for some time needed a new toiletry kit to replace a canvas one that’s been around the world with me so many times that it would be a multi-million miler if it had a frequent flyer account.  It is finally falling apart.

Not wanting a classic-but-heavy leather Dopp kit, perusing Joe’s recommendations I eventually decided on a rugged canvas Red Oxx “Nomad Shave Kit” made in Billings, Montana.  The right size at 12 x 5 x 4 and only a half pound empty, it is built to last with heavy #10 YKK zippers with Fair Trade Monkey Fist Zip Knots for quick and easy zip open and close.  I was already thinking of buying one, but the clincher for me was watching the embedded video revealing what “Fair Trade Monkey Fist Zip Knots” means.  The Nomad is wrapped and under our tree for me.

GIVING OR “GIFTING”

Since it’s the season for presents, I’ll digress for a moment to ask what happened to the good old-fashioned term, “gift-giving.”  Giving someone a gift somehow got contracted into the nouveau word, “gifting,” a vinegary concoction that makes me cringe.

Does this new verb usage lead logically to a past tense? That is, if I gave someone a gift, do I now say that I “gafted” that person? Meaning if the past tense of “give” is “gave,” then the past tense of “gifted” must be “gafted.”  Which rhymes with shafted.

THE ULTIMATE TRAVEL GIFT

I discovered around-the-world fares in First Class in the 1980s and used them often for more than two decades.  Airlines partnered to accomplish the feat, such as the oneworld group of AA, BA, Cathay, Qantas, and the rest.

Sometimes called ATW or RTW (’round the world) fares, they were first priced at a standard $5024 for going around entirely in the Northern Hemisphere or $5524 for a combination of Northern and Southern Hemisphere travel.  East or West didn’t matter; I just had to keep going the same direction once I began.

ATW fares were a tremendous bargain, and I lost count of the number of trips I made in First Class and Business Class circling the globe.  There were rules, of course, like not being able to backtrack from one destination city to another unless it was part of onward travel that could not be avoided.  Some carriers sets limits on the time (six to twelve months, typically) and the number of stops.

Since front cabin fares skyrocketed, I lost track of ATW/RTW fares. But I know they are out of sight now.  No matter the cost, I cannot imagine a more spectacular, mind-blowing holiday gift!

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?