Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

I’d rather be lucky than good, but do I really have to choose?

“I’d rather be lucky than good” is a saying that holds special weight for my family when it comes to travel.

My parents, siblings and I are people who prepare for travel. As lifelong subscribers to the “early is on time and on time is late” school of thought, we show up to airports and train stations way ahead of scheduled departure times. We are morning people who rarely need to set an alarm, much less worry about sleeping through it. And you won’t see us sprinting through a terminal unless something entirely out of our hands has gone seriously awry. In short, where travel is concerned, we are good.

But we are not lucky. I have been delayed and/or stranded more times than I can count, often on allegedly routine trips to Atlanta. The flights my brother takes struggle to get going, converting someone who was once a minor league pitcher to a major league tarmac-sitter. My sister Suzi lives in Richmond, which means not only connections but abundant opportunities to miss them. My father’s luggage got lost in Cairo. (In the suitcase’s defense, it’s pretty easy to get lost in Cairo.) My sister Lynne, who’s wrestled with motion sickness her whole life, inevitably winds up on flights that ride the skies like a hapless toddler in a moon bounce. If you find yourself sitting next to grown woman who uses the barf bag in flight, yes, it’s my sister. Mom’s luck might be neutral but for the fact that she usually travels with one of us.

The good-to-lucky ratio reverses when it comes to my brother-in-law Paul. He’s a laid-back, genial type who brings a“things will work out” attitude to just about everything in life, including travel. Though a sunny person overall, Paul and mornings do not get along, so he avoids travel before noon. Sometimes it can’t be helped, as was the case when he, Lynne and the Roommates traveled to the Florida Keys for a wedding. Their flight was scheduled to leave at 7 a.m. Somehow the joint forces of my sister’s anal retentiveness and palpitation-inducing amounts of caffeine combined to get my brother-in-law out of the house and leading their family of four into a security line at the airport by 5:15 a.m. Those forces were not enough, however, to get Paul’s wallet into the act. As he reached the counter he realized he had no wallet and, thus, no form of ID. This is the kind of oversight that will earn a person a very low rating on the Yank scale of traveler goodness.

As Paul was asking, “Will I still be able to get on the plane?” my sister was moving ahead with the kids, because the “no child left behind” rule comes with a “but to hell with the spouse” corollary.

Somehow Paul made it through security, including a search that would probably have left him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder had he actually been awake. He reunited with his family at the gate, whereas a stranded and ID-free Yank would have gotten to the gate just as the door to the jet way had closed. Moments later, Paul’s name was announced over the intercom, followed by a request that he check in if he happened to be in the area. This struck my sister as odd, since Paul had not only checked in but done so in style. When my brother-in-law got to the desk, he learned someone found his wallet in the parking lot and turned in. The even better news? The finder happened to be on my sister and her family’s flight, so the wallet had been turned in to the very gate from which they were departing.

I think you’ll agree that Paul really learned his lesson, and I know I learned mine: it actually is better to be lucky than good. So as I travel on this Friday the 13th with my parents to Frankfort for the Kentucky Book Fair, here’s to being lucky.

 

Inspirato: if you have to ask what it means, you can’t afford it

Today’s snail mail included a letter from Inspirato, a vacation club company, and it began as follows:

Dear Karen Yankosky,

Allow me to extend this personal invitation for you to consider membership with Inspirato.

All of my closest friends greet me on the street using my full name, so I knew right away I’d received a very personal invitation, but the bold print really brought the point home and made me feel special. The extension of this very personal invitation also sent me to Google, because I’d never heard of “Inspirato.”

For all I knew, Inspirato could be a reputable brand saddled with a name hatched by a focus group that had done one too many tequila shots, like Accenture, or it might be a benign-sounding name that conceals a more nefarious business purpose, like Amway.

Imagine my relief upon learning that “inspirato” is Italian for “inspired,” not “pyramid scheme.”

Why did I even waste my time trying to figure out what this was about instead of tossing the whole thing in the trash? Because the letter contained a plastic card with an alluring photo of an ocean and pool at sunset. My mind has a weakness for anything travel-related, so the minute it saw that card, its bags were packed.

See? How could I possibly resist?

See? How could I possibly resist?

Besides, I was intrigued by the letter’s claim that Inspirato is “a private vacation club for travelers who enjoy the luxury and amenities of a five-star resort and understand the value of simple moments with family and friends.” It sounded like a cross between the Four Seasons and Wal-Mart. I had to know more.

As I read on, I learned that Inspirato has partnered with American Express, which, for me, gave it a whiff of credibility. Further googling led me to customer reviews, which provided way more information than the one-page letter my pals at Inspirato sent. I found this entry on flyertalk.com particularly helpful:

Just received a mailer from Amex inviting me to join Inspirato and pay no initiation fee ($17,500 savings), annual membership fee of $2600 ($400 discount) and one annual guest pass each year ($5000 savings). I have no idea what this is and whether it’s worth it or not, or what a guest pass is.

My personal invitation didn’t mention the potential for upwards of $25K in costs. This struck me as a salient omission, but maybe such unseemly money talk would’ve been getting just a little too personal. I also learned those fees just give you “privileged access” to the properties, which really means you’ve earned the privilege of paying still more to actually inhabit them.  Unlike the flyertalk.com contributor, I don’t wonder whether it’s worth it or not, I wonder why in the world I got this invitation.

Inspirato really should have had a chat with AmEx before they sent me that letter. AmEx knows my biggest expense this year didn’t involve exotic travel and only got me privileged access to a new sump pump. And that wasn’t very inspirato at all.

But I like the way Brent Handler, Inspirato’s CEO, put it when he wrote, “There’s so much to see and do out there. It’s time to change the way you experience the world.” I’ll get right on that, Brent, just as soon as I get out of the basement.

 

 

 

Anchorage: You Could Do Worse

Alaska is wild, beautiful, vast and…really far away.

Getting to Anchorage, the starting point for my and my parents’  adventures in Alaska, required about nine hours of air travel.  We flew on United, which regular readers know is my very favorite carrier.

If you haven’t haven’t had the pleasure of flying United in a while, you might not know that it has totally revamped its in-flight entertainment.  Gone are the days when you had to spend a long flight watching some crummy movie you’d never waste good money to see in a theater.  Now you can waste perfectly good money to watch crummy programming you’d never pay to see at home.

This win-win was made possible by United’s recent partnership with DirecTV, allowing airborne consumers to watch TV shows live via satellite, a content delivery system broadband is pushing towards  obsolescence.  With this kind of forward thinking, it’s just a matter of time before United equips each seat with its own VHS player.

My parents and I forked over $7 each for in-flight entertainment privileges anyway, knowing that we faced a six and a half hour flight from Chicago to Anchorage. Only after the programming had begun did United mention in passing that coverage might be interrupted once we left the U.S., a useful thing to know when you’ll be spending the majority of your flight passing through Canadian airspace. Still, at least we got to Anchorage on time, if thoroughly bored.

We arrived at Pork Barrel International, er, Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage late on the evening of May 18 and cabbed straight to the Hotel Captain Cook, our home for the next two nights.  I had not researched the property ahead of time, but based solely on its stratospheric rates, I felt certain a vision of luxury awaited.

We pulled up to a complex consisting of three stark towers whose exteriors were mustard-colored with brown trim.  The sight did not evoke luxury so much as the color scheme in my parents’ kitchen, cerca 1975.

The Captain was built in 1965 and may well have set the standard for grandeur in its day, but since the ‘60s were days when a big chunk of the population stopped shaving and otherwise got a bit lax about hygiene, the grandeur bar was set a little low.  Today, the Captain still proclaims itself  Anchorage’s only “true luxury hotel,” which sounds better than “Acnhorage’s Crown Jewel of  Institutional Architecture.”  It’s a nice enough place on the inside, don’t get me wrong, but if that’s true luxury, I think I’ll stick with the fake kind.

Over breakfast the next morning, my parents and I traded sections of the Anchorage Daily News.  Whenever I go to a new city, I pick up the local paper because I feel like it gives me a window into the place and its people. I perused that day’s edition and found an article about how to handle a bear encounter. (Bears, moose and other wildlife do sometimes take to the streets in Anchorage.)

I read aloud the first piece of advice: “Spot the bear first.”

“Whoa, that’s deep,” said my mother.

The article did not elaborate on how one might go about spotting the bear first, so the second and final tip should have been: “Notify next of kin.”  But instead of relaying any truly useful advice, the author blathered on about running, making noise, and doing all sorts of things that wouldn’t stand a chance against the simple force of Darwinism.

Confident that we were as well-equipped to encounter a bear as we would be to gold medal in figure skating, my parents and I set about exploring Anchorage. Tourists don’t usually linger in Anchorage and instead use it as a jumping off point for excursions to Alaska’s more famous attractions.  At one time, the city’s official motto was “The Air Crossroads of the World,” which narrowly edged out “Just Passing Through” in a slogan-off.

The city is home to roughly 300,000 Alaskans, which represents more than 40% of the state’s total population.  I suspect it also boasts the nation’s highest number of moose per capita.

Anchorage might not offer jaw-dropping views when compared to places like Denali, but the city’s natural scenery still makes for some very happy wandering.  Six mountain ranges are visible from town, and an eleven-mile coastal trail gives walkers and runners a chance to enjoy both forest and ocean.  On a good day, you can even see Denali off in the distance.

Though our five mile journey on foot was nowhere near as ambitious as James Cook’s exploration of the Alaskan coast in 1778, it still left us pretty tired and hungry.  With the aid of Yelp– a tool I use far more expertly than a compass–we discovered Sack’s Cafe, an outstanding little restaurant I’d be thrilled to see in D.C.

We left Sack’s at 9:30 p.m. and headed to the Hotel Captain Cook, our way lit by a bright sun that wouldn’t think about setting for at least another hour.

The three of us agreed that our day in pretty and unassuming Anchorage had been outstanding by any standard, and especially so if measured by the number of bear encounters.

Next up: The Three Moosketeers Take on the Kenai Fjords!

The Hotel Captain Cook, in all its mustard and brown glory.

 

Alaska v. United Airlines: The Last Frontier Takes On the Unfriendly Skies

One’s enjoyment of a vacation often varies inversely with the quality of the trip back home.  With that principle in mind, I’ve decided to begin the stories of my adventures in Alaska at the end.

My parents and I had spent roughly two weeks in Alaska, one on land and another at sea on a cruise ship.  The ship’s final destination was Vancouver, and I was scheduled to fly back to D.C. from Vancouver at 11:15 a.m. on June 1.

I had booked my flight using frequent flyer miles on United Airlines.  (Yes, United is a known vacation saboteur, but I have a good reason for continuing to fly with them. I paid for my divorce using my United credit card, which means I need to fly the world’s circumference at least six more times before I’ve put a serious dent in my miles. )

The following timeline describes how my return trip went.

  • 9 a.m.: I arrive at Vancouver Intl Airport for 11:15 a.m. departure on United.
  • 9:45 a.m.: Fully checked in for my flight, I shop, wanting to spend my remaining Canadian dollars.  I purchase maple-glazed peanuts for one friend, dark chocolates for another, and ice wine for a third.
  • 10:45 a.m.: We board the flight.  As passengers busy themselves trying to wedge carry-on bags the size of dumpsters in the overhead bin, a constant drilling sound emanates from somewhere near the wings. I am vaguely aware that this might not be a good thing.
  • 11:30 a.m.:  The drilling sound has not abated since we boarded. Like most of us passengers, United was trying to ignore it, but eventually they are forced to investigate. We remain on the plane.
  • 12:15 p.m.: The pilot tells us they’ve found a problem with the hydraulics.  (Hydraulics matter only if you value a crash-less flight more than an on-time departure.) United cancels the flight.  A full load of passengers is barfed out of the plane and back into the gate area, swamping the two agents assigned to deal with the canceled flight.  The gate agents, seeing an opportunity to cut the line in half by doing exactly nothing, suggest that passengers use their phones and call customer services instead of queuing.  (I’d seen this coming and had called United before I’d even deplaned.)
  • 1:15 p.m.: I finish tussling with a customer service representative who struggled to understand why I might not want to take an 8 p.m. flight that would send me back to DC by way of Los Angeles, tacking on 6 hours of waiting time in Vancouver, an extra 4 hours of flight time, and a red-eye.  She reluctantly puts me on a 2:45 p.m. flight to Chicago that gives me 10 minutes to connect. I’m happy with this, knowing that I won’t make my connection but that my chances of getting home quickly are way better from Chicago than LA.  I ask where my bag will go. She tells me I have to get in line to find out.  New flight arrangements in hand, I hang up and take my place as the very last person in the line.
  • 1:16: United announces that they are getting a new plane for the canceled flight, and what do you know, we can all just hop on that plane, and head for Chicago at 2:30 p.m. like none of this ever happened.  Unless you already rebooked yourself, that is, in which case you have to un-book yourself from the new flight and re-re-book yourself on the old one. (Airlines love to punish passengers who show initiative.) I do this and get a reservation on the “original” flight, still hoping to make my connection at 9 p.m.
  • 1:50: I arrive at the new gate somewhat peckish but without time to buy something to eat. I break into the maple-glazed peanuts, convincing myself that if I only eat a few, maybe I can still give them to my friend. I’ll just need to find alternative packaging when I get home.
  • 2:45: Our plane has not arrived, much less departed.  I continue to eat the peanuts.
  • 3:15: Our plane shows up and we begin to board; however, United’s computer system has gone down.  What with passengers having un-booked, re-booked and re-re-booked, the crew has no idea who is supposed to have seats on this bird. TSA won’t let us leave until United figures this out.  United resorts to a manual method and breaks out pencils and an abacus. I’ve eaten so many peanuts that the remaining quantity would fit in a shot glass with room to spare.
  • 4:45: United finishes the manifest. I finish the peanuts. The chocolates sense that they are in imminent danger.
  • 4:46: Air Traffic control puts us in a hold. There’s Weather in Chicago. I break into the chocolates.
  • 5:25 p.m.: We leave Vancouver.
  • 6:45 p.m.: The flight attendants come through, offering meals for purchase. I refuse on principle and dine on dark chocolates, which I chase with ice wine.
  • 11:15: We encounter more Weather in Chicago, causing a slight reroute.
  • 11:45 p.m.: We land in Chicago and are instructed to go to United Customer Service for an Important Update.
  • 11:55 p.m.: The agent at United customer service importantly updates me that United has “courtesy rebooked” me on a 6 a.m. flight to D.C., and they have graciously gotten me a hotel room a 10-minute shuttle ride away.  I point out that a 6 a.m. flight requires a 4:45 arrival at O’Hare, which gives me 4 hours and 45 minutes to sleep if I go narcoleptic mid-sentence, and 20-30 minutes of shuttle logistics will eat into that, whereas the airport Hilton is just a few steps away. A supervisor overhears this conversation and, fearing that I might do worse than go narcoleptic at that moment, wisely offers me a room at the Hilton. United also offers me not one, but two, meal vouchers for my troubles. Because we’re not allowed to get our bags, United has given us an overnight kit. It is “eco-friendly,” guaranteeing that I will not wind up feeling clean even if I weren’t wearing the same  clothes I’ve had on for the past 16 hours, which I am.
  • 12:15 a.m.: I check into the Hilton. I request a 3:45 a.m. wakeup call. Again feeling slightly peckish, I pull out the vouchers, intending to call room service. That’s when I see that the combined total of said vouchers is $14. Knowing that it costs more than that just to consider calling room service, I decide that United won’t mind if I pillage the mini-bar snacks.
  • 4:30 a.m.: I return to O’Hare.
  • 5:00 a.m.: I blow the entire $14 on a latte, an apple and a banana.
  • 5:30 a.m.: I board.
  • 6:00 a.m.: The plane takes off, precisely on time.
  • 9:00 a.m.: I land at DCA. My prodigal bag, which was brand new before this trip and in outstanding shape when I dropped it off in Vancouver, returns with pieces of plastic hanging off of it, handle stuck in the partially upright position. It looks every bit like I feel.  Armed with nothing more than three hours of sleep and yesterday’s clothes, I start my work week.

I think social media consultant and blogger Karl Hakkareinan had it right when he said, “No vacation goes unpunished.”  As I share more stories from my time in Alaska, I’ll let you decide whether my punishment fit the crime.

The Meal Vouchers

Two meal vouchers totaling $14…Looks like I *will* have to spend it all in one place…