Sunday, February 17, 2008

Flying on American

Lately I've grown to have an affinity for train travel. Big seats, power for your laptop, and a comfortable ride. Not to mention, you can get up and walk around.

If I want to go from Chicago to San Francisco, though, flying is pretty much my only option. Unless I want to spend two or three days straight on a train. I'm sure it'd be more relaxing overall, but who's got the time? As a result, I'm currently on an American Airlines flight from Chicago's O'Hare airport on my way to San Francisco.

The airport experience was fine. Checked in online the night before, and utilized curb side check-in at the terminal. The curb side check-in booth I was in line at was staffed by one very, very, very slow guy with too many people to handle, so I started to itch, worrying about making my flight on time (or more specifically, about my bag making it on the flight). Another airport employee noticed me on the verge of jumping up and down and helpfully directed me to the next door down, where there was no line to check a bag. Worked out great, and it very nice of him to point that out to me.

Got through security uneventfully. I was kind of wondering if I'd get questioned – I have all the gadgets in the world with me. I've got an iPod, my Nokia N800, my Windows Mobile phone and two tiny laptops (an OQO Model 02 and an Asus Eee). I'm selling the OQO to one of my friends when we meet up out in California, so it was necessary to lug it along in my messenger bag.

Nobody seemed to care. We'll see if my luggage was searched – I'm sure it looked weird that I had somewhere around six power supplies packed in the luggage. (And a spare battery, which supposedly they're concerned about nowadays. I'm sure it was under the size limit, though. And I was careful to put it in an ersatz carrying case (also known as a #10 envelope), as supposedly loose batteries are verboten.

Waiting at the gate, I noticed a standby list of 25+ for our flight, which was full or nearly full already. Maybe American had cancelled some other earlier flight to San Francisco. I know the weather was iffy inbetween here and there. Indeed, we sat on the tarmac for perhaps 20 minutes, our departure delayed due to weather west of us. Eventually they got it figured out and we got on our way.

We're on a “Super 80” jet with five seats across. There are signs indicating that there are DC power plugs under the seat. I'll have to figure that out after my Eee DC power adapter arrives.

Nobody's tried to squish their seat back on to me, and I can't hear a screaming baby for miles. This is as near to bliss as I'm ever going to get on an airplane, I suspect.

Terminal 3 at O'Hare is newish and generally clean, but like all airports nowadays, is completely overrun with people and none of those people are happy to be there. This goes for the employees, too. Nobody I've ever bought a magazine or McChicken from has ever showed the slightest hint of a spark that suggests that they enjoy life. But can you blame them? Their life is dealing with people at the airport all day.

Flying used to be a situation where I'd sit back, have a couple of drinks, and try my best to nod off and not think about landing or takeoff. I guess lately I've gotten to more of a zen place where I can sit and just force myself to relax. Lately, I tend to bring a chocolate bar and a large bottle of water, and that alone for food and drink in the air. It seems to help keep me calm.

Also, did I mention the gadgets? Nothing beats toys to play with while cooped up on an airplane. I have a pair of fancy-ish Sony noise-cancelling earbuds, which bring a cone of silence down and around me with a push of a button. Hooked them up to the Nokia, then caught up with a couple episodes of one of my favorite TV shows. Now I've got Miles Davis on the iPod, while I sit here and type this in OpenOffice on my Asus Eee.

The Eee has really turned out to be a traveler's best friend. It's the only laptop I've ever had where I can actually manage typing just fine on a seat back tray table. I might not be the only person who thinks so – I can see at least one other passenger typing away on one a few rows ahead of me.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Greyhound? No thanks.

So, I took the Greyhound bus back home to Chicago from Indianapolis, today.

It was.... about what you'd expect. Lots of stupid people who don't know how to travel and don't care about being courteous to others.

Where do I begin?

There was the guy who was mad that I sat next to him. "You're sitting on my pants!" Uh, your pants are very baggy and they're half over on my seat. Move 'em. He got mad and went and sat somewhere else. No idea where, since the bus was just about full.

Then there was the guy in front of me who was determined to take up as much space as possible. A woman asked to sit next to him and he was rude to her. "Maybe you should look somewhere else first." She said, no, scoot over. And asked him a number of times to do so throughout the trip. He kept getting angrier about it, and kept insisting he was over as far as possible. I saw him. I got to watch his bald spot for four hours. He kept sitting at an angle. I'm sympathetic that he doesn't want to put his ass to sleep, but this ain't first class, and he WAS taking up too much room.

And he had his seat tilted back the entire time. And he had a giant pillow the entire time.

There's no way I could've had the laptop out, even the tiny laptop. He took up all my space. Then when we arrived in Chicago and were waiting to disembark, he turned into chatty Kathy and wouldn't shut up. He apologized about the seat being broken. Dude, I'm not dumb. It wasn't broken. You unlatched it so it would lean back, then you latched it back forward at the end of the trip. Then he kept asking the kid who sat next to me about his medals. (The medals were from marching band.) Oh. I like the drum lines. What do you play? (Trumpet.) Oh. Uh. I think the kid sitting next to me was probably right around 17 and it I couldn't tell if the idiot talking to him (and me) was just subtly developmentally disabled, or looking for a date.

The bus had lots of screaming kids, and lots of people carrying their lives along with them in garbage bags. It was, I have to admit, a slice of life I'm fine not experiencing next time. Classism? I suppose, but it is what it is. I just want a quiet place to sit without people talking to me or throwing stuff at each other.

The Chicago Greyhound terminal is nice, though. Large, has food, seems busy. I assume that's an important hub for them.

The Indianapolis side is quite a bit sadder. It's a terminal shared with the Amtrak, and since there's only one train going each way every day, it's not much of a destination.

I avoided taking the train back up to Chicago this time around because it leaves earlier in the morning than I'd care to rise. I may reconsider that for next time (or take the Megabus).

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Amtrak: Empire Builder from Chicago to Minneapolis

Last week, my girlfriend had to go to NYC for business. I didn't go with her, and because I had nothing else going on, I decided to go visit some friends up in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

It's only an hour on a plane, but when you include getting to the airport, parking (or transit), security, waiting, delays, weather, etc., it becomes a big ordeal. I'm not a huge fan of flying, though I am certainly grateful that I live in a big city (Chicago) with two airports and affordable flights just about everywhere.

But, since this was going to be for fun, I wanted a more relaxing way to travel. So, I turned to Amtrak. I took the Empire Builder train from Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul last Wednesday.

It turned out to be a lot of fun. The train left around 2pm and arrived around 10:30 pm. After boarding from the "first class lounge" at Chicago's Union Station, I was ushered to my Superliner Roomette, a tiny cabin with two comfortable chairs that fold down into a bed (and there's another bed overhead). The accommodations were amazingly comfortable. There was free bottled water, and an offer of free champagne (which I declined; too early in the day for me).

The seats recline and were quite comfortable. There's not a lot of room to stand around, but that's okay -- a private room is a private room, and a quiet place to relax is to be cherished. There was a volume control for the train announcements, a power outlet for a laptop or razor, a heat control, and a tiny closet that could barely hold my coat. They leave you a couple of bottles of water, and there's kleenex and a garbage can in the room as well. That's about it. The restroom is down the hall, and I have no idea where or if you can shower if you stay in one of these overnight. I'll figure that out on a future trip.

I have a Sprint USB modem, so for a long while out of Chicago I was online checking email, listening to streaming radio, and killing time on IM as I watched the sites roll by. Lots of farmland, but it's still fun to watch. The internet lasted for somewhere around the first half of the trip, then started dropping out too much to be useful. I suppose we were outside of a major Sprint coverage area.

Booking a room apparently entitles one to a meal, so I had what I jokingly refer to as a "train quality steak" for dinner. It was perfectly fine. Not quite Morton's, but it was good and did the trick. The only downside to a sit down meal on the train is that you don't know who you're going to sit with -- the seating is communal, and you will end up sitting and talking to people you don't know. I don't consider that much of a relaxing experience, and it doesn't help that the trains are full of people who want to meet people and hang out and chat. I fended off questions about my job and what I actually do (you work with the computers?) while having dinner with a couple of random gentlemen, one of whom was older and probably not very technology savvy.

After dinner, I stopped in the bar car for a drink, which I brought to my cabin. I then watched a few recorded TV shows on my laptop to run out the clock until we got to the Twin Cities. It was quite relaxing.

After we arrived at the stop in Minneapolis-St. Paul, there were ample cabs available, and it was a short ride to my hotel in downtown St. Paul. (More on the hotel in a subsequent post.)

As far as booking my trip, I was hedging my bets because I wasn't sure what the train experience would be like. So I had only booked a one way trip. I was happy enough with the experience that I booked the train for the return trip the next day.

The eastbound train is supposed to come through very early in the morning (by my reckoning) -- it leaves at 7:50 AM. On Sunday morning, I dragged myself out of bed, had a minor freak out when a cab took forever to arrive at my hotel, then made it to the train station around 7:30.

When I go there, I found no train. The train should have arrived already and been there waiting for us. There were buses sitting there, which I didn't think anything about. I went inside and up to the counter, and found out that the train had been delayed far west of us, due to an avalanche. The train wasn't expected at Minneapolis until 3:30 pm, and I had no clue what to do.

It turns out that Amtrak had a plan -- they procured buses for us. They split us up based on destination, and then we left on big "Greyhound"-style buses instead of a train. On time, even. What can I say? It was disappointing. I was really looking forward to a private cabin and a quiet nap on the way back to Chicago. Instead, we're crammed into buses instead, with no room to stretch or walk around. Sitting next to some random stranger, trying not to elbow them the entire time.

On top of that, I forgot my book and my headphones back at the hotel. Meaning, no iPod, and no book to read. Nor was my laptop battery very charged, as I had intended to plug it in on the train, if needed.

Somewhere in the western side of Wisconsin, the bus stopped and changed drivers. A bit further down the road, at Wisconsin Dells, the bus stopped and Amtrak bought everybody lunch at Burger King. Then, we were back on the road, and straight through to Union Station in Chicago. We actually got to the station a bit faster than if we took the train, and as always, it was easy for me to catch a cab from Union homeward. I would've taken public transit, but I had luggage and was tired.

I was quite bummed that I didn't get to ride the train home on Sunday. However, I am amazingly grateful to Amtrak -- they had a contingency plan, and they executed on it perfectly. We left on time, they provided a meal, and we made it into Chicago safe and quickly. It wasn't my favorite traveling experience, but we were not left stranded or hungry. We weren't even delayed.

Verdict: I'll take Amtrak to Minneapolis again! Maybe with a contingency plan of flying home if the train is delayed.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Stephen Fry Reviews the Asus Eee

His review is much better than Walt Mossberg's was. I think it's safe to say that Stephen gets it.