P.S. Atlanta…I’m Really Starting to Like You!

Any frequent traveler will tell you that loyalty programs have great benefits and reward handsomely those who stick with one particular brand through thick and thin. It’s not always because the hotel, airline or rental car company gives you the best service (although, the hope is to at least like them) or even have the best options, it’s an opportunity for both the company and the consumer to mutually benefit from a long term relationship which is rewarded through consistent use and free stuff. dems vs repubsI mean let’s be honest here, the travel based companies aren’t exactly mom-and-pop style operations. They’re more like trying to compare Applebee’s to TGI Friday’s. They’re the exact same thing just packaged differently and each serve unhealthy portions of absolute crap (I guess the same goes for U.S political parties!). Therefore, it’s best to pick which crap you’d rather shovel down and stick with it. At least with the airlines and hotels, you’ll eventually be granted better access or free flights/rooms instead of a constant need for Imodium.

My current brand loyalties are to Marriott, Avis and American Airlines. When I started flying, I was in and out of Philadelphia which consistently put me on U.S Airways. loyalty programsAfter they merged with American in 2015 my miles transferred over and I’ve been sticking it out ever since. The one problem with loyalty programs is of course the times when you have to go with another brand either out of convenience, price or just the general lack of options. This is the case when I fly to Atlanta because Delta has a lock on the area and the convenience of it over the other carriers far outweighs the perks associated with my home brand. I’ve never had an issue with Delta so losing one flight of miles is no big deal. Plus, it was a fairly new 737 with in-seat entertainment so kudos there.

Beyond the perks, loyalty programs feed on the psychological in-group/out-group dynamics that is prevalent in human behavior. Take a biteOnce you sign on to these programs, you’re not just choosing a brand for potential free rooms, flights or cars, you’re also joining a club of sorts that binds you with the others that have chosen those same companies. Even if we are treated poorly or have a bad experience, we are part of a club and will defend the decision to use their services again because of the fear of being abandoned into the abyss of lost travelers. I know, I’m getting a little deep here but for business travelers especially, this belonging can be a layer of comfort in an otherwise lonely experience. When I walk into a Marriott or step on an American flight, there is a little piece of me that feels at home…and that’s worth all the points in the world. (George gif your one of us you’ll take a bite)

On the flight down, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the poor bastard in front of me who was seated in a row of Outsider teens who had obviously never been on an airplane. Just the boarding process was input overload for these two as they picked, pushed and prodded at every little moveable (and removable) part of the seating area. I guess no one explained to them that the flight attendant call button was a neither a bell for their personal butler or (to their disappointment it seems) a self-destruct button. airsickGrandma must have given them a plate full of snicker doodles and a case of Red Bull pre-flight which would explain why they were so awake at 5:45am. To make things worse, the kid in the window seat bolted to the lavatory before we even hit 10,000 feet as we later learned he had severe motion sickness. During a 90-minute flight, this was repeated 3 times including us actually landing while he was still in the bathroom. I watched all this from the comfort of the aisle with an empty middle seat to my left. I guess I could’ve offered it up to help this situation…but come on…why would I do that!

Before this year, Atlanta was always just a pass through city and I never really had the chance to explore it much. I have to say, after just three visits I’m really starting to enjoy this place and can see why it has experienced a population explosion over the last few decades. Yes, I know, the traffic is a mess and the last time I was in town the interstate caught fire but that has not deterred the impressions that the rest of the city has made on me to date. Most of my time has been spent in Buckhead and Midtown but I’ve also been able to explore others areas like Decatur, Westside, the northern suburbs, Old Fourth Ward and finally downtown. Atlanta has a ton of stuff to offer for just about any area of personal interest and the amount of construction that can be seem throughout the skyline means that there is only more to come.

I think I should be given a medal on this trip because for the first time, I actually spent more time walking than driving.

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Buckhead Station

Any chance not to put a 4,000 pound, gas-powered bullet on the Georgia highways should be met with celebration. This was possible because of MARTA and another opportunity for me to nerd out on a train system. MARTA is a small but efficient system consisting of just four different train lines running either north/south or east/west. It does provide a line directly to the airport which I think is a plus that every major city should consider at some point (I’m looking at you Indianapolis…).

As much as I enjoy the experience of the cities, every now and then I need to cut loose, get some fresh air and stretch my legs by finding a hiking spot that is both challenging and convenient. SnapseedI had several hours to kill before my flight home so I spent them at appropriately named Sweetwater Creek State Park located about 20 miles outside of Atlanta. The 2,500-acre park is divided in two by…you guessed it…the Sweetwater Creek and his home to the New Manchester Mills Ruins site, an old civil war era cotton mill that was set on fire after being captured by the Union Army. The red trail which runs along the creek and by the Mill site was amazing, especially after reaching the 1-mile point where most of the families turned around and went back to the trailhead. SnapseedThe trail continued past the creek rapids and eventually turned westward into the woods. The white trail which traversed the western perimeter was actually a little disappointing since it mostly consisted of an old access road and didn’t exactly provide much challenge. I can’t be too disappointed because I got my steps in for the day, burned some time and reconnected with mother nature (whatever that means).

Back at the airport, everything was pretty routine. Unhealthy food, people talking way to loudly on their phones for 9pm and the anticipation of heading home once again. I’m not sure why the nice but slightly geriatric gate agent decided to provide more details into the boarding process than was actually necessary. She was like one of those White House tour guides: “we’re walking, we’re walking, now we’re stopping.” Late night flights on Friday’s aren’t exactly for the first time travelers but no one seemed to mind. sheldon brain betterUsing the power of airline apps I once again scored an empty row in a fairly full flight. It’s all about timing and a little bit of luck.

Thank you again Atlanta…we’ll be in touch!

-DPW

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Travel Time: IND-ATL

Air travel is an adventure. It’s an adventure when you first head to the airport, while you are on the trip, and when you reach the destination. Of course, like for most, these adventures include other people. Unless you have your own plane or are rich enough to fly in solitude, people come with the territory. Instead of my usual 6am departure this one started later in the morning. My path was Indianapolis to Atlanta via Charlotte which I know goes against convention since every airport has a direct flight to Atlanta. In this case Delta decided the flight home did not need to fit into my work schedule so American it was (a decision I would later regret).

I brought up the adventure part because of my departure. Even the mostly seeming, uneventful flight has its moments and mine started the minute we left IND. I am one of those flyers who usually ignores the person next to me. Through experience, I have grown a shield which prevents me from paying much attention to my fellow passengers. However, that day it must have been down. Next to me was a young girl, probably 11 or 12 (or 8 for all I know…I’m terrible at determining someone’s age). ShieldsAnyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve been in this position but she boarded the plane with NOTHING. Absolutely, nothing to keep herself entertained. At first I didn’t notice but after a half hour or so, my instincts kicked in and I noticed she was struggling. She wasn’t losing it…she was just bored. My empathy alarm started going off immediately. Here I am, iPad in hand, watching videos, reading, basically having a smorgasbord of entertainment at my finger tips and she has nothing. Damn my conscience.

Now my empathy tank usually runs on about a quarter full so I wasn’t ready to give up my iPad (would she really want to watch reruns of Curb Your Enthusiasm anyway?). At the same time, I am a grown man and she is a young girl.

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Unblock Me

There is a very thin line on being helpful versus being creepy so I had to first decide if I was going to take that chance. After watching her open the airline magazine for the fifth time I decided to take a chance and see if I could help. On my phone I have a very entertaining game called “Unblock Me” where you move blocks around until the designated piece can escape the room. I asked her first if she like puzzles which she said yes. I showed her the game and handed it over which she seemed to really enjoy. I felt good about helping out but sorry for her at the same time. I can only imagine she was flying from one parent to another and this was probably routine. But who puts a child on a flight with nothing to do? It’s so easy to lose faith in humanity these days…

With the exception of some pretty heavy turbulence in and out of Charlotte, the rest of the trip went fine. I do forget that some people are still afraid of flying. One little jerk during the flight can send some on a full scale panic attack. On the second leg of the trip, the woman next to me kept doing the trinity cross thing on her chest after every bump. I don’t want to be the one to tell her but if we start going down, there’s no amount of praying that’s going to stop a 150,000 pound metal tube full of jet fuel from turning us all into a mountain of ash (all due respect to the faithful). Even for the most seasoned flyers, bad turbulence can make things uncomfortable and cause you to start thinking about what realturbulencely matters. Like did I clear my browser history before leaving or did I let the chance to tell someone they were an asshole slip by me forever. You never know what’s going to happen so for now on I’ll be more prepared! Anyway, for people like my new devout friend, I usually keep a few anxiety pills handy and will happily turn into the in-cabin drug dealer if anyone near me really starts flipping out. What can you say, I’m a people person at heart!

Atlanta really is a great city and someday when I feel like I’m up for the challenge, I’ll do a full review of Hartsfield. Until then, I’ll just ride the tram, get my car, and jump head first into the famous traffic of the ATL. IMG_2324I had quite a bit of stuff to write about during this trip but it all pretty much got trumped when I-85 caught on fire. No joke…the damn interstate caught on fire (Google it!). Luckily it did not affect much of what I was doing but the entire city went into a panic. The traffic there is bad enough without a large chunk of a major artery missing. Luckily nobody was hurt but the pain associated with increased time at the wheel is going to be felt by the natives for some time to come.

During my off hours I was able to see some of the new and old attractions of Atlanta. I was advised to check out the Ponce City Market, the new multiuse retail/dining/living monstrosity built on an old Sears & Roebuck building in the city’s historic fourth ward. IMG_2323It’s a pretty impressive establishment with lots of interesting places to eat and shop. Based upon the surrounding neighborhood, I imagine this is an attempt to gentrify another area closer to the heart of the city which is not isolated to Atlanta. Projects like this one are now a common sight in urban areas across the U.S. as the interest in moving closer to city centers has become the newest trend in American migration. The upscale clientele along with the fact you have to pay to park even in the surface lot leads me to believe the property values that surround the market are probably skyrocketing as I write this post. It was a nice place and I’m sure I’ll hit it up again on another trek south.

For me, no visit would be complete without a trip to the Zoo. Zoo Atlanta located just southeast of downtown is an impressive campus that sits within the grounds of Grant Park. IMG_2328They had many great exhibits and for an afternoon visit, the animals were very active which made the trip that much more exciting. Of course, it was 72 degrees out so why wouldn’t they be out and about. I have an affinity for the great Apes so I spent a good amount of time just watching them roam around their enclosures. No trip to Zoo Atlanta would be complete without stopping in to see the Pandas. This was a great day to do so because the 7 month old babies were playing together on the firehose hammock. There was a good crowd but not so bad where you couldn’t enjoy the view.

I really enjoy visiting Zoos when I get the chance because they are just one way we humans are still trying to maintain the natural world. Like many Zoos, Zoo Atlanta is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums which is dedicated to animal conservation. These facilities are not just fun places to see animals; they are places that will make sure these animals will exist even as we continue to destroy their habitats around the world. There are a lot of dedicated people who work for these organizations so let’s just say, a quick trip to the Zoo puts my faith back into humanity!

On the trip home I learned two lessons: One, the Atlanta airport punishes you for not flying Delta and two, you can pretty much be in Iowa and still be allowed to call yourself an Chicago airport hotel as long as American Airlines is paying the bill. My flight out was in the T terminal at ATL which can’t stand for anything other than “terrible.” It has limited amenities, small gates and in the afternoon, bakes in the hot southern sun.

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Yep…looks like a murder scene.

A delay in one flight meant mine was as well. It happens; nothing in air transportation is perfect. However, I did get the chance to miss my connection and take advantage of the wonderful accommodations provided by the airline. I imagine in 1985, this Holiday Inn (which calls itself an airport hotel even though it it 30 minutes west) was once a great place of business. Now it’s a $60 per night, John filled shithole where apparently soap is optional (maybe it’s a perk for the working girls!). The 70 year-old shuttle driver who proved that interstate lane lines are just decorations was entertaining enough to get me through the night. A few hours later, I was back at O’hare and on my way home. Like I said, it’s always an adventure!