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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On the Road Again

On occasion, usually once a year, I get the opportunity to do a little travelling for business. It's nothing fantastic but it is a nice little break from the office. The predominant reason for my travelling is for training that relates to my job. Here's a little compendium of recent travels for work and five tips that might help you avoid my pitfalls.

Tip #1 Think about your flight. Are you taking carryon luggage? You might not want to sit in the front row. You have to stow items in an overhead. If it’s a long flight, you might not want to sit in the back, either. You may find yourself with a bunch of people hovering in the aisle waiting for the bathroom. When you check in, take a look at the seat assignments. You may just find an empty row and be able to stretch out a bit.

Now, I am not a huge fan of flying. In fact I can count on Count Rugen's right hand how many times I've flown in my life. All, but two of those trips, occurred post 9-11. It's funny how much air travel has changed in the last seven years. I don't mean that in a way of saying that before 9-11 it was one way and now it is another. I mean that in the last seven years the concept of air travel and security has constantly changed. For one, I have to take my shoes off before I get on a plane. Two, unless I plan on only being somewhere for one day, I either have to pack every toiletry I have into the approved size bottles and hope that I have enough clothes so that I can fit my bag in the overhead, or I have to check a bag and have everything stuffed in there and hope it doesn't get lost en route. With that being said, I will give certain airports a lot of praise. They have done what they can to make the security procedures adequate and seamless. However, there are some places and some flights I'd rather not be on again in my lifetime.

Tip #2for the business traveler. Really decide if getting miles are worth crappy flights. I have a US Airways card and I try to fly with them when I can. However, they aren't the power house they once were. The new thing is Southwest and more than one person has told me to go with them. They offer better flight plans and roomier accommodations. However, I can't wear that revealing tank top I like because they say I'm inappropriately dressed.

At the end of August, I had to go to Nashville for business. With fuel prices and the entire country tightening the belt, travelling became a lot more ridiculous. I had to check one bag which cost me $15.00. I also had a lap top bag as a carry on item. I made the arrangements with our travel people trying to find the most economic and shortest flight. For some reason the major carrier, and coincidentally the one I get points with, did not have a direct flight to Nashville. On the trip down, I had a stop in Washington DC. Let me tell you, that was not fun. First off, the trip to DC was great. The cabin had only two seats on either side of the aisle and I ended up having an empty seat next to me. However, when we got to DC, everything changed. We got off the plane into the terminal and had no clue where to go. Our connecting gate was not clearly marked on the directory maps. Next, we had to take a shuttle. We had to walk down this really awkward and bouncy set of steps down onto the tarmac to load into the shuttle. We then travelled about 500 yards to another terminal. Then we sat for an hour waiting to board our flight. During that time I heard several loud speaker announcements which were intelligible. I would consider Reagan International Airport to be a somewhat high profile and busy place. One would expect a certain level of quality that goes with a major metropolitan airport as opposed to say, Elmira Regional Airport in upstate New York. For the life of me I could not understand what people were saying.

Finally, we began boarding. We were directed down a set of escalators and onto another shuttle bus which took us around the perimeter of the airport terminal. There was a lot of broken concrete in the area. It was a little reminiscent of that scene in Aliens where the marines are driving into the colonists compound. It showed the same sense of desolation and disrepair. After getting to our destination, I realized I was not going to be happy. We were sitting in the middle of a runway. We actually boarded a little plane on the runway. My coworker, who is by her own admission, freakishly tall, hit her head on the ceiling of the cabin. Again, I thought it was going to be a nice trip because I had an empty seat next to me. That idea became short lived as this little stick thin girl came be bopping along and climbed into the seat next to me. Then, came the wait. We sat on the runway for a half hour waiting. It turned out that we were travelling with a group of special needs adults and one of the wheelchair bound members had somehow scraped their elbow while being unloaded from the shuttle. Now, we needed to wait for paramedics to come out to the runway to check him out, clearing him for flight. A half hour later, we were all loaded. The hour and a half flight was one of the most uncomfortable I had ever been on before. This tiny twig of a girl next to me seemed to take up so much space and I spent the trip hanging over my arm rest into the aisle continually being bumped by the flight attendants.

The trip home was just as bad. This time we had a similar plane flying from Nashville to Philadelphia. I thought my luck had changed because I managed to have a seat to myself. That was until the guy in front of me realized he was in the wrong seat. Turns out, so was I. We were in each other's seat and he wanted to change. So, while he got to sit by himself, I was forced to sit next to a guy reading the paper taking up the center arm rest and some of my seat. Again, I was stuck hanging over the arm rest for the hour and a half flight to Philadelphia. Philadelphia International was pretty easy to figure out, but man was it packed. There were a lot of lines for everything and I skipped lunch and just sat in my seat for two hours waiting for my connecting flight back to Pittsburgh. Now we had to deal with Andrew. To describe Andrew you have to remember Bill Cosby's comic bit about flying to California with little Jeffrey who was four years old. Andrew was much the same age and temperament. He ran back and forth through the chairs at the gate and bothered anyone who was sitting near the window. His mother was totally ineffective at keeping control of him and several times he wandered into the busy midway. The more she said his name, the more I was pissed at her. I kept thinking, "Go get your kid. Tell him to sit down and not move." When he did sit, he would constantly ask if it was time to go, "Is it now? Is it now? Now? Now?" While it was annoying, I have the ability to block these things out and not show any disgust. What was more annoying was the level of frustration that was mounting on my coworker seated next to me. I could see the vein start to protrude and steam was coming out of her ears.

When we did, finally get to board, I had the front seat which gave me great leg room, however, my laptop had to go into an overhead storage bin about five rows back. I was seated next to another person, but the ability to stretch out made it easier to get comfortable. Unfortunately, when we landed, everyone was on their feet and in the aisle. I couldn't get out of my seat because of the line forming, let alone get back to the compartment with my laptop. A little miffed, I just told a guy, who made eye contact with me, to open the bin above him and grab the bag in the middle. Hopefully, I would be done flying for a little while. That was the equivalent to about four trips worth of disgust.

Now, once I'm where I need to be, I like to get into a nice hotel and get situated. I'm the kind of guy that likes to get to my room, unpack what I need to and prepare everything for the next day, so that I can just go to bed without worrying if I need to have something ironed or if I suddenly realize that I forgot something. I've been fortunate to be able to travel a day ahead of my schedule, giving me the evening to get acclimated to time changes and geography. A lot of times, I will get in, get settled, and then meet up with my fellow travelers for dinner. Afterwards, if the option is available, I'll make a note of where I need to be in order to maximize my sleeping and morning preparation. It sounds rather organized and I'm usually a fly by the seat of my pants type of person when I'm home but in another state where I am at the mercy of public transportation or lengthy trips home, I'd rather be prepared than suffer.

Hotels can be neat or scary depending on your perspective. I've worked in the hotel industry and even done a stint for some extra hours on the clock helping out housekeeping by stripping rooms. Believe me when I say, there is no five second rule, even on an unmade bed. If you do any travelling which puts you in a hotel, I suggest watching those reports on television where they check out hotel cleanliness. It doesn't matter if it's a Five Star Rated Resort or a No Tell Motel on the side of the interstate, germs are not a discriminating species. I've been in some pretty scary places in the past. I've also been in some small places.

In 2006, I took a flight from Pittsburgh to New York. I checked one bag and took no carryon luggage. Everything went smoothly and all was fine. We caught a taxi from the airport and arrived at our hotel. Have you've ever seen those old Warner Brothers cartoons where Bugs Bunny or another character live in an area that gets overdeveloped and they are left with their little rabbit hole or home in the middle of a bunch of high rises. Yeah, that's what this hotel looked like. We had the option of a few different places but at nearly $300 a night we wanted to be good kids and try to be a cheap date.

Tip #3 for the business traveler. If the company is paying for it, go with something a little more than cheap. While, I'm the first person to yell about corporate spending being out of hand when it comes to depriving the little guy of benefits and the ability to stay ahead of the cost of living. If tithe big boys are going to fly first class and stay in a five star resort, the least I can have is a clean room with a king bed and a view.

First off, we go to check in and I'm standing there with two guys who have normal everyday sounding American names. I'm the only idiot with an ethnic name. Yet, Zamir and Nabil (I'm not making this stuff up folks) couldn't get the American names out without having to sound it out. They came to my name and it rolled off their tongue like it was Brad Pitt. After the hooked on phonics lesson, we went up to our rooms. Each of us opened our doors and fell into the room, tripping over the corner of the bed. I thought it would be nice to see what kind of view I had, so I opened the blinds and there I was staring at a brick wall. All those New York City dwelling clichés were being rung up with every new discovery. I had no dresser so I stood my luggage up on the stand and just worked out of there. I could stand outside the bathroom to wash my hands. This was going to be fun. In all, the trip wasn't bad. I ate good, got to see a little of the town, walking everywhere. I probably lost three pounds just from walking.

They usually rent this room out to a blind dude

Walls in room may be closer than they appear.
Later that year, we had to fly to San Jose, which was a five hour direct flight. I didn't mind having a direct flight, but it was a bit long. Anyways, once we landed we managed to circle the block five times before finding out that our hotel had been bought by another company and had already changed the sign out front. Now, this place was cool. It was a Holiday Inn of all places. It was only a two story complex right next to Highway 101, which in my mind screams motel, but it was built around a courtyard with a beautiful Spanish style theme. The rooms were very nice, although the bathrooms were dated in the sense that they had a pocket door instead of a regular door.
Build a little bird house in your lobby.

Cool Courtyard

Wouldn't it be love-a-lee?
In 2007, we travelled to Denver for more training and stayed in the Double Tree. If you get a chance stay there. First off, they give you a big chocolate chip cookie, which is nice. The rooms were great and the view of the mountains in the background was awesome. By far the nicest hotel I stayed in was the Embassy Suites in Niagara Falls for my honeymoon. We had mentioned that we were on our honeymoon and they bumped us up to a junior VP suite with a fantastic view and gave us free valet service. In November, they must not get that much business, so they figured on just being nice. Our room was a two room suite with a living room in the front, a bathroom with Jacuzzi tub with a window directly above it. If you opened it up, you got a fantastic view of the Falls. It also had an electric fireplace. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

Being in different cities like Niagara Falls, Denver, San Jose, or Nashville, you pretty much have to drive everywhere. I will say, that I have not had a major problem finding my way around different cities, but sometimes directions can be confusing and if you don’t know the area, you may find that landmarks have changed or road work conditions can hinder your progress, greatly.

Tip #4 Before leaving or if you have the capabilities after you arrive, print out some directions to your destinations. I try to carry a bunch of different turn by turn directions so that I can plan any activity based on time and effort needed to arrive.

I had just recently got a new phone and as a promotion I was given a month free of a navigational device which uses your phone as a starting point. I highly recommend using it, because it really helped me out a few times. Call your provider and tell them that you are going on a trip and want to test drive it and they may be possibly just give you a free month in hopes that you will keep it.

Now that you have directions, let’s go eat. This is probably my favorite part of a business trip. I go out to eat about two or three times a week but it’s never any place glamorous. When I’m travelling, it’s no holds barred. I will get the occasional McDonald’s or other fast food if lunch is not provided, but with the company buying and most people abusing the privilege, I don’t feel too bad going to a steakhouse or a Cheesecake Factory one time. In fact, my usual ritual for going out is to hit a Cheesecake Factory and a Hard Rock Café in every city I travel to. Hard Rock’s are a trendy, touristy place. They’re different everywhere you go, so you’re experience is never the same whenever you go to a new one. I’ve been to seven so far and from my experience the best has been New York City. It is also the biggest, in my mind next to Denver and Myrtle Beach, respectively. Niagara Falls and Nashville appear to be the smallest in size with San Francisco somewhere in the middle of them all. Nashville is set up to have its gift shop across the parking lot in a different building. Myrtle Beach is the most exotic, having an Egyptian theme. The restaurant is built inside a pyramid. Pittsburgh is one of the disappointments, unfortunately. While it is very nice inside, there is a lot of wasted space and it doesn’t have that same Hard Rock feel as the others.

Tip #5 Plan out some good places to go eat. Do a search online and check reviews. Remember, unless you’ve been there before, you never know what you might be getting into. Big name franchises are usually a safe bet, however, you may miss out on a diamond in the rough. Also, make sure you check out the expected manner of dress. You are on the road and don’t have the option of pulling out a good set of clothes if you didn’t already pack them.

On our New York trip we wanted to find a little place to unwind after all the walking we did. Next to our hotel was a bar called Desmond’s but we don’t really understand soccer or rugby the way some do. We stuck out like a sore thumb and thought it would be wise to not make a scene as the dumb looking tourist in the wrong place. Instead we ended up drinking at a ESPN Zone or a big name eatery. That can get expensive. So, we hit the streets in search of a friendly little pub. Unfortunately, it appeared that a lot of bars in Manhattan required three forms of ID, a blood test, and a reference from Donald Trump. Thinking we were going to be out of luck, I suddenly came up with an idea. Instead of looking, let’s just ask someone. Let’s find a normal everyday guy, like us, and ask him where he would go drink. I spotted a doorman in front of a high rise and asked him where three guys in jeans could get a drink. He said, “Head down the street and turn left.” We followed his directions and wound up at a little place called Mulligan’s. We walked in and knew we had made the right decision. For the Manhattan Cosmopolitan and Appletini scene, I’m sure it was considered a dive. But to us, it was a diamond in the rough. U2 was playing in the background. People of all ages were sitting around just relaxing. Great place. I highly recommend it if you can find it. I know it’s somewhere in the vicinity of the Empire State Building and Times Square, if that helps.

That’s all I got for you, today, intrepid travelers. All I can say is that develop a system and things can go really smooth for you. If you are a laid back kind of person that doesn’t put much thought into it, that’s fine, too. Just remember, towels on the floor are going to be taken, and to make the trip go a little better, imagine the flight attendants doing their safety spiel to a techno rhythm. That always makes me smile.

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