Wednesday, April 25, 2012

[Travel] Sample SRQ-ATL Trip Report

Buckle up and settle in folks, your patience has been rewarded. Alright, that is a total lie, but at least for a fleeting second you thought you were going to get an exciting trip report. Instead today's post is a practice trip report featuring a recent weekend getaway. I've posted a link on Flyertalk and hopefully I'll get some feedback so when the actual sojourn begins I won't completely suck at writing these (I'll just mostly completely suck which is way better). The one thing I've already learned is that I need to take more photos and preferably of higher quality.There are all sorts of things I wish I'd have been able to include visually but that I had no photo for. For the actual trip report I will include flight stats but I'm way too lazy to do that for two brief SRQ-ATL trips.

This past weekend I had a business meeting to attend out-of-town. People routinely say to me, "as a professor you must travel to some really interesting places". Hell yes, I do! I go to the Atlanta Airport Hilton at least three times a year and this time you are all going with me. Oh, the glamour! The trip began at beautiful Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Don't ask my what makes it international - probably the once-a-day Air Canada flight. Ever since I managed to luck my way into Gold Medallion status on Delta for this year I've booked every flight I can on them. Sure, I rarely get any sort of upgrade but for one moment in time I get to pretend like I'm not just a guy who is getting better treatment for opening a credit card.
The delightful Delta bird taking me to Atlanta
Right before take-off, just for giggles, I looked at where I was on the upgrade list. There were 17 people on a flight with no more than 150 passengers who had some claim on an upgrade. I've seen worse in the past year - including one ATL-PHL flight where nearly half the flight was on the upgrade list - but no luck for me today. Here is a picture of a coach seat. 25C to be exact. I know, you've never seen a coach seat before. As I was taking this picture the flight attendant actually asked me "is this your first flight"? The things I do for a trip report!
It's seat 25c with artistic blurring b/c I suck at photos
It is traditional to photograph the food and beverages during the flight. As a Gold Medallion, Delta was nice enough to give me a coupon for a free snack/drink in lieu of an upgrade. I was all ready to snap a photo of the can of Pringles or the bag of M&Ms that I was going to enjoy mightily until they told me that on such a short flight they didn't stock the plane with anything but peanuts. Not even Biscoff cookies. Andre the Giant's immortal line from Princess Bride stuck in my mind for the rest of the flight.

After deplaning - great word, that - I had a fierce internal debate about whether to grab a bite in the airport. It would have been far more interesting to have a fierce external debate in the middle of the B terminal but I'd had my fill of the TSA already. I knew that there was a delicious barbecue meal waiting me that evening and so I decided to pass on scrounging for food in the airport.

One brief shuttle ride later and I arrived at my home-away-from-home, the Atlanta Airport Hilton. The clerk who checked me in noted that I had stayed here five times but, despite that, she still insisted on being thorough and telling me things I already knew. I was going to stop her but she just seemed so happy to tell me about where the shuttle picked up for my return to the airport. Hilton Gold status got me an upgrade to a room with executive lounge privileges.

As you can see from the photos, the room was quite nice though it was basically the same as any other non-upgraded King room in the hotel. It did come with access to the executive lounge on the 17th floor, which for me means unlimited Diet Cokes. That alone probably saved me more than the free wireless.
Do I really need to caption this?
Excellent view of the airport from the hotel
Having stayed here quite often, I felt pretty confident about what I was going to get. Strangely, this trip was less satisfactory than previous stays if only because of the hotel room doors. I don't know how I'd not noticed this before, but whenever a door on my floor closed it made a ridiculously loud noise. Whenever a door in one of the neighboring rooms closed it would actually cause my bed to shake. Thus I had to rely on all of my bag of tricks (white noise machine, earplugs) to have a chance at sleep. The hotel has just recently undergone a remodeling so this might be related to new, heavier, ostensibly-sound-proof (except for the sound they generate when closing) doors.

After unpacking and catching up on work e-mails, I desperately needed food. So like a good Floridian I went to dinner at 4 PM. I headed to Barbecue Kitchen of College Park, my one go-to, never-miss restaurant in this area. I got the barbecue pork with fried okra, a delicious mashed potato casserole, the mixed basket of biscuits/cornbread and cherry cobbler. Damn good cherry cobbler. Everything was as delicious as usual except, disappointingly, for the pork. It had a nice smoky flavor but was otherwise bland. The powerful and tangy barbecue sauce did its part to redeem things but I was kicking myself for not getting the brisket. After all, if the best you can say about the meat portion of your dinner is "the sauce redeemed it" then something has gone wrong.
Mmm, cherry cobbler
Early the next morning I hauled myself up to the Executive Lounge for breakfast. The spread is certainly enough if you aren't picky and, fortunately, I'm not. A delicious Starbucks-esque muffin, some fruit and a box of Fruit Loops later and I was back in the room rooting on my beloved Gunners as they played to a draw against the hated Russian imperialist army that is Chelski. I also drank two or three diet cokes courtesy of said Executive Lounge.
Executive Lounge spread. Minimal at this time of day.
Comfortable seating area
Later that day I saw a giant vulture walking on the ledge - scary!
I then spent the day in meetings. I had very little to add as I am a new member on this Board and the activities are a bit outside my knowledge area. Little surprise though that I had quite a few thoughts on how we could be maximizing our credit card spend. The organization will save at least a few dollars thanks to me on that front.

My other contribution, and this one shocked me, was to suggest the Barbecue Kitchen for lunch. Somehow, despite a combined 30+ Atlanta Airport Hilton stays between them, none of my lunchmates had ever been. This time the meal turned out spectacular. I had the brisket and it was hands-down the best brisket of my life. I say that even knowing that my grandmother might be reading this and it would break her heart. Grandma, your brisket is a strong second! No pictures on the meal because it was so damn good that I couldn't stop eating for long enough to get the camera out. Apologies.

That night I made a bit of a dinner out of the Executive Lounge. At five or so they put out some cheeses, a few vegetables, and exactly one hot item. Tonight's was potstickers which one person delightfully referred to as "these weird tacos". Yup, it happened.

After one more uneventful night at the Hilton, I had a decision to make. For lunch I could either go to one of the three (3!) Waffle Houses within half a mile or I could go to the airport and sample their wares. I ended up going to Popeye's Chicken in the C-terminal. It was not worth the extra train ride as the biscuits were cold. What the hell, Popeye's? I then traveled back to the A-terminal so that I could purchase a soda from the Burger King Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. For those who have never seen one, it's a fountain machine with over 100 flavors of Coke products. Sadly my day was completely ruined - not even kidding - because this one had Dr. Pepper/Diet Dr. Pepper instead of Pibb Extra/Pibb Zero. About the only place in the damn world I can get me some Pibb Zero is from a Coke Freestyle machine and they increasingly stock Dr. Pepper instead.

I spent about ten minutes in the Delta lounge in the A-terminal where I stuffed myself silly with Biscoff-and-nutella sandwiches. I hate nutella. The stuff makes me completely and totally nauseated except when I eat a bit of it on Biscoff cookies. Then it's the foodstuff of the gods. Go figure. The flight back home was brief and relatively uneventful. For maybe the third time ever my upgrade cleared thanks to having few business travelers on a Sunday afternoon. After a brief delay waiting for our spot in line we were airborne for the 70-minute flight home. I did not avail myself of the free booze option in first class, but I did have two Frescas and quite a few of the new-to-Delta Toblerone miniature bars. A perfect ending to a working weekend.
Awwww yeah, living life in first class. Look at that leg room!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

[Travel] Planning the Trip: How to be a Jerk

For those who are bravely soldiering through the pre-trip material, or for those who have subscribed to the RSS feed (which I assume I have through the Blogger platform) and therefore have no choice: good on you! Your patience will soon be rewarded. There's today's post, a mini-trip report next week so I can get some practice, and then one more post the week after finishing up on hotels. At that point you'll get some actual content. Crazy, I know.

I'd like to use today's post to once again apologize to the poor Aeroplan representative who was tasked with calling me two months ago to inform me of a forced schedule change. Back in January, when the reality of my original planned flight itinerary from Chicago to Hong Kong was sinking in (it was ORD-YUL-ZRH-CDG-BKK-HKG with no stopover being longer than 12 hours or overnight), I tried to find some more direct routings in first that would still keep me experiencing some of Star Alliance's nicest airlines. It was all for naught as the good folks at Flyertalk confirmed that if I made any changes to my itinerary I'd be slammed with Aeroplan's newly instituted fuel surcharges on my entire trip, not just the portion I was rebooking. As nice as it would have been to have a more direct routing there, it wasn't worth $800 to me.

Fast forward to late February. I had just sat through once of the most painful and stressful three hour work meetings of my life. It was one of the first times that I really questioned the decisions I had made that led me to this point in my life. So I'm coming out of that and I see a voicemail from Canada. Oh boy. Aeroplan/Air Canada is infamous for screwing with itineraries without soliciting input from such minor peons as the folks doing the traveling.

I listen to the voicemail. One of the flights on my outbound had been cancelled but I did not have to worry as they rebooked me on a direct from Chicago to Tokyo on United (note: not one of Star Alliance's nicer airlines). The woman who left this message actually made it sound like I'd be thrilled by this change. After all I was taking SIX flights to get from Chicago to Tokyo and she had found a way to do it for me in just one. I guess she didn't even notice that I had a six day stopover in Hong Kong that she'd just obliterated.

Needless to say I was hopping mad when, at the end of the voicemail, I have a call waiting. It's the same rep. She asks if I've listened to the voicemail. I said yes. At that point I should have just shut up and waited to hear what she had to say. Instead all of the frustrations of the morning came rushing out and she had to sit there and take it. I didn't curse or anything but it was the closest to yelling I think I've ever done to a poor phone rep. It turned out that the cancelled flight was the one from Zurich to Paris - I think I even said something like "I'm pretty sure I can hitchhike from one to the other during my layover, let alone take a train or a cheap flight".

Long story short (too late!), while I was in the meeting she had independently discovered the alternate routing I had wanted to book in January and she'd put me on that without any extra charges. I think the best I could manage to save face was to stammer an apology and silently be thankful that somehow it had all turned out better.

Let this post stay here for all of time as my 'mea culpa'. Random Aeroplan phone rep, I am sorry.

Monday, April 9, 2012

[Travel] Planning the Trip: Hotels, part 2

When last we left off I was planning hotel stays. As planning continued it became clear that I'd need a hotel for at least one night (or in some cases one day) in Anaheim, Chicago, possibly Montreal, possibly Bangkok, Honk Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Paris, and somewhere(s) in Germany. About the only part that was clear was that I didn't have to worry about where I'd be sleeping in England because family history and serendipitous Arsenal fandom had taken care of that.

In the previous post I covered finding hotels in Anaheim and the Disneyland portion of the Paris stay. I guess I might as well address the "possibly" in Montreal and Bangkok. As the itinerary was initially laid out I'd have a layover of 8 hours in Montreal and 12 hours in Bangkok. As both were going to be on the portion of the trip that had me in a plane or an airport for 58 straight hours I had sought out some dayrooms. All of that came to naught as the airplane gods decided that my trip would be rerouted for me by Air Canada thanks to a schedule change. I'm not complaining (I'll cover that in a later pre-trip post).

A few of the hotel decisions turned out to be easy. I sat down and looked at every chain that I either had points in or that I at least could transfer points into profitably from American Express or Chase. After doing that, a few gems stood out.

For my two nights in Chicago, one at the beginning of the trip and one at the end, I really only cared that the hotel was close to the airport. If it's close enough to walk to a Gino's East location then so much the better. There's a Country Inn that has an airport shuttle that's a reasonable amount of Carlson points so that's where I've spent most of the rest of my Carlson points from the delightful 50k Carlson promotion from November.

Seoul also ended up being pretty straightforward as there's only one airport hotel that I could do fairly cheaply on points. Hyatt Regency Incheon here I come! I have one friend who I am sure is going to try and talk me into taking the train into Seoul for a little while on my 20 hour layover, but I suspect I will sit in the Hyatt and work. Possibly even post part of this massive trip report.

I'll save the rest of the hotels for two more posts between now and the end of April. I'll also likely write up a post on the fun that was the schedule change. That is my penance for the truly awful reaction I had to the poor telephone rep who had the misfortune of calling me that day.