Thursday, October 26, 2006

LAX-LAS-IAD - The 12 Hour Journey Home

I headed out from the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza at 5:00 PM on Wednesday, October 25, 2006 for LAX, and then IAD via Las Vegas. I knew it would take me awhile to get home. But I didn't think it would take 12 hours door-to-door. Here's the recap:

October 25, 2006, 7:30 PM
Tonight’s itinerary is LAX-LAS-IAD. I’m at LAX, waiting to board the flight to Las Vegas. The last time I was here, I was in the midst of a Mileage Run, sitting in the same exact terminal. Dinner tonight was at Wolfgang Puck’s – a warm foccia chicken sandwich and a small side Caesar Salad. Quite tasty, but overpriced.

I enjoyed Los Angeles. The weather was warm and sunny, the conference was fun and I got to meet a lot of interesting people. The last few days have been fun. But I’m exhausted. Primarily because of the time change. My body is still on East Coast time. And I automatically wake up at 7 AM East Coast time, regardless of where I am in the world. That meant waking up at 4 AM for the first two nights in Los Angeles. I actually slept until 5 AM this morning.

The lack of sleep, coupled with the excitement of the conference and all the travel have tuckered me out. I’m sure I’ll be sleeping for most of the flight back to IAD.

The plane to Las Vegas has arrived. Time to go enjoy the Group 1 Boarding I received for being a Premier member!

October 26, 2006, 8:30 AM
The flight from LAX-LAS got off to a slow start. First, the pilot was delayed, flying another plane into LAX before switching planes and flying back out. Second, a "check engine" light appeared on the dashboard. Mechanics spent time trying to figure out what the problem was. They finally rebooted the system and the warning light went away. Someone quipped, "the warning software must have been written by Microsoft!"

The flight to Las Vegas was short. Less than an hour. It's always fun to fly into Las Vegas at night. You get to see the entire city all ablaze in light and color. Unfortunately, I was only on the ground for a plane change. I didn't get to venture out into the city night.

My flight was supposed to take off at 10:50, but got pushed back to 11:20. I'm not sure what the delay was. But it gave me an opportunity to grab a Starbucks Green Tea Frappicino and try my hand at the slots. Let's just say the frappicino was more rewarding than the slot machines were.

The flight to IAD was smooth. The biggest surprise was the flight was completely full. I'm not sure why so many people were interested in taking the red eye to Washington, DC on a Wednesday night. I really expected to see the flight half empty.

But I had my Economy Plus seat with the extra leg room, and enjoyed that space the whole way. I spent most of the time sleeping. But it's always hard to get a good night's rest in an airplane.

We landed at Dulles at 6:30 AM. I retrieved my bag at 7:00 AM, and took a shuttle back home that got me to Bethesda at 8:00 AM. 12 hours, door-to-door travel time.

I head out to Los Angeles frequently. I don't recall it taking that long to get there or back. Normally, it's 30 minutes to IAD, an hour waiting for the plane, 5 hours of flying time, and then another 30 minutes to get to my sister's house in LA - about 7 hours. The 12 hour commutes really drag on. Obviously, the key is flying non-stop. But I'm trying to earn enough Equivalent Qualifying Miles to hit Premier Executive before the end of the year. I should be pretty close.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

IAD-LAX On a Very Busy Travel Sunday

I am flying from Dulles – IAD to Los Angeles – LAX today. The day started off well. I got up at 6 AM, showered, finished packing, and was out the door a little after 7 AM. The Mrs. drove me to Dulles – IAD and decided to park and see me in.

A FlyerTalk discussion board provided advanced warning that Dulles would be a zoo. All United IAD-LAX flights from 9 AM on were booked solid. I was looking forward to two things: 1) Taking advantage of United Premier status for the first time; and 2) Offering to give up my seat and catch a later flight in exchange for a flight credit.

Premier Status
Having Premier status paid off immediately. The lines to check in and clear security were long and deep. Doing both was taking close to two hours for passengers. But, with Premier status, I was able to use specially designated lines, where the wait was only 10 minutes.

The Mrs. was originally skeptical of my Las Vegas Mileage Run. She thought it was a waste of time. But after seeing how long the general member check in and security lines were, she was sold. She immediately saw the benefits to Premier status and apologized for ever doubting me.

United Flight 233
Things didn’t work out as well for Flight 233, which was canceled due to mechanical difficulties. That sent over 100 passengers scrambling to make alternative travel plans.

I used the Customer Service courtesy phone to call and arrange for another flight. After a long hold, I finally got in touch with Shannon, a United representative that was very patient and helpful. She tried to get me on several flights that were scheduled to take off in the morning, but was unable to. She finally got me on American Airlines Flight 75, leaving at 6 PM. Part of the reason Shannon gave me the extra effort was of my Premier status.

American Airlines
Unlike United, American Airlines has no Customer Service Desk in the terminals. That meant I had to take the shuttle back over to the Main Terminal to obtain my boarding pass. United originally told me they would arrange to have my checked bag transferred over to American. But the American Ticket Agent recommended I go retrieve my bag personally and recheck it in with American. That entailed going back to the United Ticket Counter, and then going to the United Baggage claim, getting my bag, going back to the American Ticket Counter and rechecking my bag. In other words, it was a lot of walking and walking and walking.

I am currently booked on a Y-Class ticket which I believe means better seating and bonus miles. The bad part is I have a middle seat.

In Limbo
After getting back to Terminal D, I decided to sit down to a decent lunch at Moe’s Bar and Grill. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich and an Iced Tea. There was a big part of me that wanted a beer after my morning ordeal. But I needed to get some work done, and didn’t want to get too distracted.

After lunch, I updated my presentation and called a few friends to catch up. And now I’m in limbo until the flight, which is about 3 hours away. I’m ready for a break!

Celebrity Citing
During my airport wanderings, I saw Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. He was being escorted by three body guards, one taking lead and two following. Interestingly, he was pulling his own carry-on, wheeled suitcase. At first, I was surprised nobody was helping Justice Scalia with his bag. Then I realized that the security detail’s responsibility is to protect the Justice, not lug bags around.

American Flight 75, IAD-LAX
As expected, the flight was full. I got to sit in Business Class, which was nice. But not as nice as United's Economy Plus - which seems to offer more leg room. The bad part was having to sit in the dredded middle seat. I always prefer an aisle seat, so I can get in and get out faster.

As it turned out, the guy to the left of me was heading to the same conference. He was interesting to talk to. The guy next to me reeked of garlic - which was not a pleasant experience. I kept on thinking about the positives - like if I got attacked by a vampire, the garlic aroma would protect me. Those thoughts didn't help.

This turned out to me my 2nd flight on American in three weeks. Both United and American have pros and cons. But I still prefer United over American.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Olazzo - Restaurant Review

The Taste of Bethesda was held on a rainy Saturday a week ago. Dozens of restaurants set up booths and offered tasting of their specialties. The Mrs. and I checked out the event. It was very well attended, and the aroma of food ranging from barbecue to Indian spices wafted through the air. Alas, we had a late breakfast and weren't hungry. One particular booth stood out. Olazzo, an Italian restaurant, offered tasty looking canollis. Judging by the long line of people waiting to buy the canollis and the very pleased expressions from tasters, you could tell the dessert was worth trying.

I took the Mrs. out to Olazzo's for dinner on Friday. We were concerned that we might end up with the same experience we got at the Red Tomato - overpriced and unfulfilling dishes. Fortunately, the restaurant proved to be reasonably priced and worthwhile.

The bread is served fresh and warm. (Unlike Red Tomato, where the bread was stale and crusty.) Light olive oil and balsamic vinegar were poured. We ordered the calimari appetizer to start with, which came out in a gigantic Martini glass. The calimari was lightly breaded, fried and still warm, served with marinara sauce.

Next came house salads. This was the only minor disappointment of the night. The salad was drenched in dressing and cheese. The restaurant should offer the dressing on the side instead.

Finally, the entrees were served. The Mrs. got the Chicken Parmesan. I ordered the Lasagne Bolognese. We were each served with hefty portions on big plates. The food was hot and tangy, and hit the spot. There was nothing fancy about the food. No fusion dishes or unique twists on old recipes. The entrees were all just plain, simple, good Italian-style eating. And worth every penny.

Neither of us could finish our entrees. So we had them wrapped up to go, and ordered a canolli to go as well. All of the food made the perfect late-night snack.

I highly recommend Olazzo to anyone interested in a good, homestyle Italian meal!

Monday, October 16, 2006

JFK to DCA - The Long Road Home

Air and highway traffic were backed up all around NYC. A plane carrying New York Yankee pitcher Cory Liddle crashed into an upscale condo in Manhattan on the Upper East side. Not knowing whether it was an accident or a terrorist attack, North American air defense launched air patrols around major U.S. cities. Two eastern Manhattan bridges were temporarily shut down to traffic, along with a part of the Upper East Side. Many residents went home early, praying for the best, but preparing for the worst.

Further, a heavy, steady rain fell on NYC for most of the afternoon and into the evening. Those two events caused backups everywhere. Fortunately, things did not worsen.

I called American Airlines to double check whether my flight was still scheduled to depart ontime. It was, but I heard that a number of other flights had been delayed or canceled. I hopped in a cab at Times Square, dropped a co-worker off at Grand Central, and then headed for JFK. It was 9 PM and traffic was still backed up.

The cabbie was patient, and knew the streets. He got me to the airport with plenty of time to spare. I checked in, grabbed my boarding pass, cleared security quickly and headed for my gate. The terminal was surprisingly empty. I walked quite a distance before seeing signs of life.

I expected the boarding and flight to be quick and simple. Unfortunately, the earlier flight delays and cancellations were continuing to cause problems. Flights coming into JFK were delayed, which caused them to delay departure. An earlier flight to DCA was canceled, causing dozens of passengers who had been waiting for 4 hours to express their frustrations. The gate attendants were nearing the end of a very long shift, and were not in the mood to be friendly with angry passengers.

I was on the last flight out to DCA for the evening. I wasn't sure whether I'd be involuntarily bumped. But, somehow I wasn't. Boarding was delayed by an hour. And takeoff was delayed by another hour due to a backup of planes taking off. It was odd seeing a nearly empty terminal, but a runway with dozens of planes lined up for departure.

The plane ahead of us was a wide body Airbus, Virgin Atlantic. Bigger planes with stronger engines tend to create more turbulence and a bigger wake. Therefore, a longer waiting time for takeoff is required for planes that follow. We were on the ground a few more minutes waiting for takeoff, after the Virgin flight departed.

The flight back was uneventful. It was still cloudy, which was disappointing. I wanted to see the city lights as we departed NYC and headed down the East Coast. Instead, every once in a while, you would see the clouds breaking up slightly, and a beam of lights popping out. It almost looked like the cities were in the sky when that happened - quite an interesting effect.

After landing, I grabbed a cab and headed home. I got to bed at 2 AM, two hours longer than originally planned.

In hindsight, I should have taken AMTRAK back to DC. It would have taken about the same amount of time. Had I known about the delays at the airport, I would have taken AMTRAK. But that's life.

It was also the first time I have flown on American Eagle, American's regional jet carrier. I wasn't impressed. And I will try to avoid flying American Eagle, as well as other regional jets in the future. Most regional carriers don't offer the same comfort and features the big planes with the big airlines do. If I'm paying the same amount, I'd rather fly a big jet than a regional. Lessons learned on the road.

Next up on the travel schedule:

  • Los Angeles
  • Phoenix
  • Los Angeles
  • Chicago
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles
  • Toronto
My schedule has changed a bit from my original posting. But the amount of travel has not.

My next flight will be as a Premier United Airlines passenger. I look forward to the extras I'll receive!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

My First Trip on AMTRAK

Rust. It’s the first thing you notice when leaving Union Station on AMTRAK for New York. The reddish-brown color engulfs the area. The Metal I-beams, platforms, fences and rails are all covered in rust. Even the brick buildings in the rail yard have the same reddish-brown color. It is neither appealing nor attractive. But it is symbolic of the city in many ways.

On the one hand, the shops and restaurants at Union Station are clean and bright, inviting and relatively safe. On the other hand, just a few steps away, the rusty rail yard sits – calling out for renovation and renewal. When will that happen? That’s anyone’s guess.

I rode AMTRAK for the first time ever on a business trip to NYC. I have taken trains in Europe and Asia. And I have taken commuter trains in the U.S. But I have never ridden on AMTRAK until the other day.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised. Boarding only took a few minutes. You were allowed to take any seat, even though the ticket indicated “Reserved Seating.” And I had a row all to myself for most of the trip. The seats were clean and comfortable. The train departed on time and arrived in NYC on time. And the stops along the way were relatively short.

I understand trains tend to be more crowded on Mondays, Fridays, weekends and holidays. I rode up on a Wednesday, and didn’t have any problems with crowds.

It takes about 3 hours to travel by train from DC to NYC. Some people feel that takes too long. The alternative is to drive or fly. Driving takes 4-5 hours. Flying only takes a little over an hour. But there is additional travel time getting to the airport, clearing security, waiting for boarding, then arriving at the airport and catching ground transportation into the city. All that takes about 3 hours as well.

I enjoy flying. And don’t mind short flights whatsoever. But the last two times I have flown out of NYC, I have gotten caught up in flight delays. I hear that is more the norm than the exception. Many seasoned travelers try to avoid connecting flights in big cities such as NYC and Chicago to avoid the crowds and frequent flight delays.

AMTRAK is definitely worth considering for future trips to NYC.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

NYC and back in a Day

I went up to New York City for the day on business. A number of blog-worthy events occurred on the trip. Rather than squeezing every comment into one entry, I will post them as a series of comments.

My final itinerary for the trip was:

  • 7:00 AM Metro to Union Station, Washington, DC.
  • 8:05 AM AMTRAK Vermonter to New York Penn Station
  • 11:15 AM Cab ride to Grand Central Terminal, NYC
  • 5:00 PM NY Subway to Times Square
  • 6:00 PM Reception at Marriott Marquis Times Square
  • 8:00 PM Cab ride to Grand Central Terminal and then JFK Airport
  • 9:40 PM Arrive at JFK
  • 11:00 PM Board American Eagle Regional Jet for Washington, DC, DCA
  • 12:10 AM Finally takeoff from JFK after waiting for 14 other planes to takeoff.
  • 1:15 AM Arrive at DCA
  • 2:00 AM Arrive back home

I was scheduled to return home before midnight. But due to bad weather, a plane crashing into a high-rise condo in Manhattan, and highway and airport delays, I didn’t make it home until much later. Suffice to say, it was a very long day.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Red Tomato - Restaurant Review

The Red Tomato Restaurant is in Betheda, MD.

I ordered the Spagetti Frutti de Mare - pasta with shrimp, mussels and clams. Other restaurants that offer the same dish tend to provide equal portions of shrimp, mussels and clams, with a healthy portion of pasta. Red Tomato provided a ton of mussels, a few clams and two over-cooked, rubbery shrimp on a small bed of pasta. The dish was tasty, but unfulfilling.

The Mrs. ordered proschiutto pizza. The crust was burnt and the portions were small.

We were seated next to the kitchen, and had to deal with the steady flow of wait staff coming and going. The patrons at the table next to us were rude and annoying.

The portions were small. The dishes were overpriced. The food was tasty. But overall, I was disappointed. I don't plan on going back.