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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Hiking in Philly and Questionable Food in Maryland: What Could Go Wrong?

Routine becomes a big part of every frequent traveler’s life. It not only helps us be more efficient in regards to our excursions, it brings forth a sense of comfort that that is sometimes absent when constantly leaving your home again and again. Mine is usually the same. Pack the day before; wake up early; eat a larger breakfast than normal to avoid airport food (at least at the beginning); and always take an Uber to the airport (yes, Lyft is just as good; I just haven’t jumped on that train yet). This trip started no different than normal but had just enough variation where I became annoyed, intrigued and curious all at the same time. That always makes for a good story…at least in my own head.

The last part of my routine is always the wild card and can either be pleasant or unpleasant depending on lots of circumstances. smoke in carI have a personal policy in regards to rating (and now tipping) of Uber drivers that I consistently use across the board. Smokers never get tipped and I usually deduct one star per ride for the inconvenience of the nasty smell I have to endure. No matter how much they try, there is no amount of air freshener that can mask the scent of stale cigarettes in the fabric of a car which of course always transfers onto my clothes. Now that Uber has caved and has tipping as a part of the post-ride experience, I’ve become more stringent on my policy: If my ride sends me to the dry cleaner, you’re not getting anything extra…period. If you haven’t figured it out yet, my ride on this particular morning was a smoker who had a thing against air conditioning. A few requests and several sighs later, we finally made it to the airport, both happy for me to get the hell out of the car.

Once you’ve logged enough flights, you cringe at the idea of having to check a bag. Unfortunately for a five-day trip that included transporting some work materials, I didn’t have a choice in the matter. bag claimEvery part of bag checking is terrible from the check-in procedure all the way to the hell that is baggage claim. Speaking of hell, I think that if everyone ends of having their own personal place of damnation, mine would probably include waiting at the bag check line for one of the lanes to open up. The little demons would constantly be walking away, making other damned souls reduce their baggage weight or spend hours answering ridiculous questions like, “no, you can’t retroactively apply all your past flights to the miles program you just enrolled in” (a conversation that happened as I was waiting…seriously). Luckily, the terminal wasn’t too busy so I made it through without blowing a gasket or getting a sneak peek at the final resting place of my soul. Call me dramatic but many frequent fliers would agree that they would rather be force fed airline hummus until they vomit than have to send even one bag through that process.

Although, my routine had been shattered at this point, I moved on and made it to Philadelphia unscathed. I even scored an empty row during the flight which let me relax on the way in while also saving another passenger from inhaling from the smoke invested blazer I was still supporting. phillyI’ve always liked Philly. For my first job out of college, I traveled often and was assigned to the Northeast. Philadelphia was one of the first major cities I encountered during that time which left a great impression that stays even today. It’s an interesting city that incorporates a combination of history, modern luxury, many different transportation options and, of course, a large population, many of which walk around looking like they want to hurt me. After being there long enough, you get used to the East coast attitude and stop taking it personal. Philadelphians have dealt with a lot of shit over the years, so a little bluntness in their communication style should not be unexpected. The fun part is when you give it back to them. Just as a tip, do it with confidence…otherwise, you’re fucked!

One thing I like about East coast cities is Diner Culture. Maybe it gives me some nostalgia for the post-war era which I never lived or, being a huge fan of Seinfeld, makes me feel like one of the fantastic four hanging out at Monk’s Coffee Shop every day. Either way, I had two clients want to meet at diners throughout the city which were both parts charming and disgusting at the same time. IMG_2755They are all pretty much the same. Worn out vinyl booths surrounded by outdated décor, juke boxes and a greasy smell that will remain, even if the building is someday torn down. The waitresses look exhausted, wearing the same outfits from the 50s and doing their best not to stab the asshole who keeps sending back his home fries because they’re not crispy enough with a fork (not me by the way). Their monotone voices, expressionless faces and lack of interest in anything other than their next smoke break makes me believe that no amount of tipping is going to make up for a lifetime of bad decisions. Regardless of outward appearances, they’re to-the-point, efficient and are obsessed with refilling your coffee mug. My last sentences may have sounded like complaining, but truth be told, I feel at home within the diners and always enjoy trying out a new one when I’m in town.

I had an afternoon off so I decided to go a little historical by visiting Valley Forge located several miles north of Philly near King of Prussia. ValleyForgeWashingtonWithTroopsValley Forge was the winter military camp for the still new American Army under the leadership of General George Washington. From what I learned, the Army spent a miserable six months at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778 while the British lived like Roman senators 18 miles south in Philadelphia. Valley Forge is now a National Park dedicated to preserving the sanctity of this area which was considered to be a psychological turning point for the American rebels. Although if you plan on visiting anytime soon…prepare to be disappointed.

The visitor’s center and theater area are impressive and the grounds are well maintained but that’s about where it ends. At least during this visit, most of the main roads which take you between points of interest were closed off for construction and only accessible for the official tour bus that cost $17 per person (nothing like topping off those tax subsidies). My main goal was hiking some of the park which I also found to be a challenge. According to the park map, several trails can be accessed through the parking lot west of the visitor’s center. I guess you need to be a fucking revolutionary scout yourself to find the trailheads because I sure as hell couldn’t figure it out.

I decided to take the paved, Plumb trail up to Washington’s Chapel only to discover that the chapel itself had nothing to do with the continental army. Washington had probably been six feet under decades before that thing came to be. It was old and pretty but I felt a little cheated. IMG_2764I made my way back on the Chapel Trail because the description mentioned “steep sections with great views of the Schuylkill River.” The only thing I saw were downed trees, gnats and an old railroad line that looked like the place where Wil Wheaton and the gang found little Ray Brower’s body in Stand By Me. It emptied back closer to the visitor’s center but not without first making me walk by three identical, boarded up houses which I’m pretty have been (and will be) the scene of a gruesome murder. Let’s just say that my sense of Patriotism wasn’t elevated after this trip so the next time I’ll just go to the casino instead.

The second half of my trip took me out of Pennsylvania and on to College Park, Maryland; home of the University of Maryland and the mighty Terrapins. It may just be me, but trying to invoke some sort of fear into your opponents by way of a turtle is quite silly, but I guess they’ve made it work. The university is very nice with matching brick buildings and the stadium situated right in the middle campus between the alumni center and the residence halls.

I was attended a conference on campus which is not uncommon in my line of work. This gives me the chance to compare and contrast the facilities staff at many different institutions. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say I hope the University of Maryland doesn’t pride itself on its hospitality. rude waiterDuring the program portion of our pre-dinner reception, the bar tenders decided it would be a good time to take turns working on their aim while throwing empty bottles of wine and liquor into the recycle bin. Nothing turns a celebratory atmosphere to shit quicker than the sound of broken glass echoing throughout a very narrow room. The dinner staff wasn’t much better and thought the invocation was a great opportunity to bring out 300 dinner plates and not so quietly stack them and their metal tops against the walls. I won’t even get into the quality of the food but if you’re currently a tuition paying student at UM, get a refund or a box of Imodium…both you’re going to need sooner than later.

My trip home was routed through Reagan (DCA) instead of Baltimore (BWI) because, one, I hate Southwest which is the only direction option to my home base (IND) and two, I get to ride the DC metro to the airport, a thing me and only a few others in the world actually enjoy. DCA was pretty busy for a Sunday afternoon but tolerable in the C terminal. I did watch a guy pull the “excuse me” pitch while walking right by everyone in the pre-check line for no other reason than (as I can imagine) he was just an asshat. Bravo to him for acting-as-if and getting away with but some guy in security did stop him before hitting the X-ray machine. Some people were just born without a conscience I guess. I flew home in another empty row so I have to say that, all and all, this was another successful trip and definitely not my last. Thank you East Coasters…until we meet again!

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