The Modified “Wing It” Approach

The Wall Street Journal carried an interesting article about travel recently. It reiterated the ultimate travelers’ dispute, between a free form trip (“winging it”) or a far more structured travel itinerary (“planning it”). If you’re a subscriber you can read the article, which is behind the WSJ paywall, here.

The Journal isn’t the first publication to pose the “wing it” versus “plan it” question; it’s been debated in travel circles for years, if not centuries. (It’s also the subject, incidentally, of vigorous debate in other areas, like setting career paths and writing a novel.) The tug of war is between making sure that you see what you want to see and can go where you want to go (planning) or letting the karma and the creativity flow and hoping that you’ll find that magical travel moment that isn’t addressed in any guidebook (winging it).

In my view, the key point is “know thyself.” I’m called the “Uptight Traveler” in our household because I like to get to airports and train terminals early. I’d feel unsettled totally winging it and going somewhere without an understanding about where I am staying and when I am moving from point A to point B, and how I’m doing that. The angst I would experience would interfere with enjoyment of the trip, obviously. I also think it’s important to consider what you really want to see at a place and doing enough research to identify those places, and then checking to see whether you need to reserve a spot to do so. I would kick myself if I went to a faraway place and missed out on seeing a crucial site because I hadn’t paid attention to that kind of detail. Doing some research and planning in advance and understanding the requirements also is a way of showing respect for the local culture and local rules.

At the same time, I don’t want to be on a regimented schedule that is accounting for every minute of my time. I want to see sites and visit museums and churches, but I also like to build in free time, to allow for some random exploring, meandering about, and down time at a cafe or coffee shop or tea house. You obviously can’t get a complete understanding of a different culture in a short trip, but you’re going to get a much better sense of a place and its people if you’re not constantly on the top deck of a tourist bus listening to a tour guide. A crammed itinerary can also be exhausting, and building in some down time where everyone in your travel party can spend that time as they see fit is essential.

One of my favorite personal travel moments came during such down time, on a beastly hot day in Assisi on June 12, 2003. We had just hiked up to the fortress at the top of the town and come back down, and I decided to duck down a small street and visit a church that had caught my eye. I went in, sat down in a pew in the dark coolness of the church, caught my breath, and listened to a recording of Gregorian chants as I watched a monk get the beautiful little church ready for an upcoming service. It was a quiet, lovely, calming moment that I will always remember. I believe in building in a sufficient amount of “winging it” time to allow those special moments to occur.

Around The World (Again And Again)

Some people really like cruises. I’ve been on two, and they were nice experiences.

But if you really like cruises, consider this option: a cruise line is offering people the chance to live at sea, in a cruise ship converted into a floating residence that will constantly circumnavigate the globe. One trip around the world will take about 27 months, with about 540 days spent in more than 200 ports that the ship will visit. Travelers/residents can rent a cabin for a minimum of six months–although many apparently have signed up for longer stints, with greater rent discounts–and the cheapest berth will cost $8,000 a month for two people, along with a $30,000 deposit. The priciest room is $35,000 a month for two people, with an $80,000 deposit. (That suite is already booked, in case you’re interested.)

You can see photos of the ship that will be carrying the passengers on their endless around-the-world trip, and some of the amenities it will offer, here. The cruise will be an adults-only affair. It is clearly catering to an older audience; a sales manager for the cruise line describes the ship as akin to “a retirement home on the water.” Of course, pretty much every cruise could be described in that way.

What would it be like to be on an endless cruise around the world? I’m not sure, but I do know this: I would definitely hope that I liked my fellow passengers, because after six months with them anyone who was annoying would really be getting on my nerves.

Redefining “Cooperation”

I’m sure the job of a TSA agent isn’t an easy one. They’ve got to remind travelers of the ever-changing rules for screening, enforce the security standards, and review the x-rays of countless suitcases and computer bags every shift. They are also regularly dealing with stressed-out people who left too late and are now are trying desperately to get through security and catch their flights. There’s bound to be some friction.

Still, I thought this sign that I saw in an airport recently in the TSA checkpoint area was an interesting juxtaposition. After announcing in bold letters that any threats, verbal abuse, or physical violence against TSA agents are strictly prohibited and could give rise to criminal charges and thousands of dollars in fines, there’s a polite thank-you to travelers for their “cooperation.” Typically, you wouldn’t think of “cooperation” as describing compliance with instructions in the face of monetary penalties and criminal prosecution.

Don’t get me wrong: I think TSA agents are just doing their jobs and should be treated with respect and consideration–which in my traveling experience is exactly what happens. I’ve never seen any kind of incident in the security area, and I hope that I never do. But the TSA’s definition of “cooperation” is a bit more elastic than mine.

The Road Home

Yesterday I got up early and drove from Savannah, Georgia to Columbus, Ohio. It’s an interesting ride that took me on I-95, then I-26, then a long stretch on I-77–one of the major north-south arteries in the eastern part of the country, running from the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina, through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio to Lake Erie–before finally rolling through southeastern Ohio on Route 33.

My journey began in the coastal low country, where the roads were flat as a pancake. The roads were so flat for so long, in fact, that it was mildly startling to encounter my first hill in inland South Carolina. But the countryside quickly becomes hilly, and then mountainous, as you intersect with I-77 and head north through the Blue Ridge Mountains and and later the Appalachian Mountains. Before you know it you are dealing with numerous switchbacks and driving through the long tunnel at Big Walker Mountain.

I-77 is apparently notorious for truckers; it is ranked as one of the most dangerous roads in the country for drivers of the big rigs, primarily because of its unpredictable weather. The weather is so unpredictable that I-77 has its own weather tracker website, which provides information like that shown in the screenshot above. I got a taste of the squirrelly weather yesterday, when I hit a significant amount of thick fog in one of the mountain passes. The drive also features lots of steep inclines and declines and significant curves as you maneuver through the mountains. It’s impressive work by the traffic engineers and road builders, but surely no treat for tractor-trailers.

As I drove, I once again appreciated the investment in our national road system, which allowed me to make a reasonably straight-line drive back home and complete the trip in a single morning and afternoon. The only sour taste came when I hit two “pay to drive” stretches–a paid “express lane” option in North Carolina, and three toll booths, requiring payments of $4.25 each, in southern West Virginia. The express lane option would have really irked me if the traffic was heavy, but fortunately it wasn’t. The toll payments in West Virginia made me wonder why tolls were required there when the rest of I-77 was, literally, a freeway. The road went through rugged country at that stretch, and at least it seemed that my toll payments were keeping the road in good repair. In the grand scheme of things, paying $12.75 and buying a few tanks of gas to complete a 670-mile journey is a bargain.

The Low Country

They call the coastal area around Savannah Georgia, extending up the coast to South Carolina, the low country. Crisscrossed with rivers, creeks, and other waterways, it is flat country where the live oak trees sport thick beards of Spanish moss.

This is an area where people pay attention to the tides. This is not surprising when you literally live at sea level, and an especially high tide could wash over the coastal properties. Much of the seaside territory is salt marsh that stretches for miles, as seen in the photo above. At high tide, the reeds are largely submerged; as the tide recess, the reeds are exposed. In the distance you can see the barrier island that separates the area from the open sea.

We live in a big country with lots of different environmental areas and zones. The low country area is a good example of our ecological diversity.

The Driving Option

Like many people, I’ve had some evil luck traveling by air over the past year or so, and have had to deal with delays and outright cancellations of flights that have left me stranded. In view of those unhappy experiences, I’ve vowed to use the driving option as an alternative method of transportation when I think it makes sense to do so. Yesterday I put the driving option to the test by driving from Columbus to Atlanta for a meeting.

The stated flight time for travel from Columbus to Atlanta is one hour and 40 minutes. Build in the time needed to get to the airport and get through security to your gate with time to spare and the time needed to get out of Atlanta’s airport, which is one of the nation’s largest and busiest, and you’re probably looking at about five hours, all in. In contrast, the drive time is about eight and a half hours, door to door. That’s at the outer limits of what I would consider to be a reasonable driving alternative zone–that is, anything within an eight-hour drive should be considered for a visit by car rather than by plane.

If you’re interested solely in speed, the airline flight is the obvious choice. Of course, there are other advantages to driving (or disadvantages, depending on your perspective). With driving, you are an active participant in the process, rather than a passive passenger. With driving, you control when you leave and arrive, rather than being subject to flight schedules. With driving, you take the weather, technological, and scheduling snafus that have affected airline flights over the last year out of the equation–although of course you might hit a traffic jam. And there’s always the chance that, GPS system notwithstanding, you might get lost.

The drive from Columbus to Atlanta is a pretty straight shot: you head down I-71 to Cincinnati, join up with I-75, cross the Ohio River, and then follow I-75 through Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and northern Georgia all the way to Atlanta. I left a bit before 7 and got in a bit after 3 p.m., and in the process I got a taste of the country that I would never have experienced from above 10,000 feet.

I knew I had left the Midwest behind when I rolled past Florence, Kentucky, where the water tower says “Florence Y’all.” That perception was confirmed when I got a chicken sandwich for lunch from a Bojangle’s (a chain we don’t have in Cbus) somewhere in Tennessee and the woman staffing the drive-thru kept calling me “darlin'”. The drive takes you past cities (Cincinnati, Lexington, Knoxville, and Chattanooga) with a lot of countryside, and Civil War battle sites, in between. My Ohio sensibilities were touched when I saw that “Cleveland” and “Dayton” are also places in Tennessee. I listened to music and reflected on the fact that I am fortunate to live in a big, diverse country with an interesting history.

I like driving, and for me the journey from Columbus to Atlanta showed that the driving option is a viable one. I’d do it again.

Doggie Bag

It’s becoming more and more common to see dogs in airports–so much so that it’s almost rare to have a flight without at least one canine companion on board. It therefore makes sense that luggage manufacturers, pet supply companies, and creative inventors would be developing new products to help dog lovers manage and transport their four-legged pals in airport surroundings.

This contraption, seen yesterday afternoon at John Glenn International, is one example of what innovation has produced. The pooch’s body was zipped securely into the little bag, like a child snugly tucked into bed beneath a blanket, but its head was out in the open. The bag rolled along, like a standard roller board piece of luggage, so the dog got a fun ride and could check out its surroundings, and the device was sufficiently lightweight that when the dog and the lady reached an escalator, she could use the straps on the side to lift and carry the dog on the downward ride.

This product seemed to have a lot of advantages over the mesh holding pens that you often see on planes; it wouldn’t have the cage-like feel that some dogs object to, and the rollers made it as easy to maneuver down the concourse as any piece of luggage. For the other passengers like us, keeping the dog secured in the bag was better than letting the pooch trot loose alongside the owner, giving rise to the risks of inevitable nervous dog accidents or some of the dicey dog versus dog encounters we’ve seen recently.

Our society is still working out the parameters of acceptable approaches to dogs in airports. This device, which obviously is designed for smaller animals, seemed like a good way of accommodating the varying interests of the dog, its human companion, and other airport users who might be leery of an up close and personal interaction with a strange dog.

On The Airboat Tour

We’re down in Southwest Florida for a short visit. The weather has been beautiful, and yesterday we drove down to Everglades City for an airboat excursion. That’s the official name of the shallow draft boats with the huge fan on the back that propels the boat and allows it to skim across the surface of the water. Those of us of a certain advanced age will associate the boat with ‘60s TV shows Flipper and Gentle Ben.

If you haven’t ridden on an airboat, the captain sits in the elevated seat right in front of the fan, and the passengers sit up front. Because the fan is loud, everyone wears a headphone and microphone headset so passengers can ask questions of the captain. After a short primer on the plant and animal (and reptile) life of the Everglades and the wonders of the banyan tree with its characteristic above-ground roots, we set out into the watery wilds.

The airboat is a fun boat to ride. It is incredibly maneuverable vessel, able to make amazing hairpin turns at high speeds. We would approach a tight turn, shift to one side or the other, and skid around the turn without a problem. it obviously helps to have an expert captain at the helm, and you need to hold onto your hats—literally. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

We saw one alligator, largely submerged. You can just see his head popping out of the water in the bottom middle of the photo below. Our captain explained that the gator was balanced in his tail against the shallow bottom of the bayou. He didn’t move as we sat there and watched him. We also saw a manatee rise silently to the surface for a sip of air before dipping down below the water.

The Everglades were a maze; only a trained captain could avoid getting lost in the twists and turns. But there were some straightaways when the captain throttled up to full speed and went racing along that the boats top speed, which is about 40 m.p.h. On the straightaways the canopy of the banyan trees is almost perfectly shaped for the caged fan at the back of the boat.

Our airboat tour was like an amusement park ride through an area of great natural beauty. If you haven’t tried it, I encourage you to give it a go.

Hot Coffee In A Warm Place

I’m in Butler, Pennsylvania for work and have stopped at a great place—Cummings Candy and Coffee—in Butler’s charming downtown area. No candy for me, but the coffee is hot and delicious, the staff is friendly, and it’s warm and old school inside.

You can find places like Cummings in most towns. Business travelers like me are grateful for that.

The Last 747

This week, Boeing produced its last 747 “jumbo jet.” A freighter model, the last 747 was delivered yesterday to Atlas Air and will be used as a cargo carrier. It was the 1,574th 747 produced by Boeing, and its delivery ends a remarkable 54-year run for that airplane, beginning with the first test flight of the first 747, pictured above, on February 9, 1969.

To give that longevity record of the airplane that came to be known as the “Queen of the Skies” some context, that means the first 747 took off before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, when Richard Nixon was President and the Vietnam War dominated the news. For most people who have flown on 747s, 1969 is ancient history. It’s hard to believe that a single model of an airplane could be so dominant for so long in the field of air travel.

The Seattle Times published an interesting article this week about the 747, and some of the people who designed and built this remarkably successful engineering marvel. If you’ve ever been on an international flight, you’ve probably been on a 747–the plane that is far wider than domestic flight aircraft, with nine or ten seats across, two aisles, and lots of space (relatively speaking, of course). The plane was designed, built, tested and delivered on time. It could carry an astonishing number of passengers–more than 400, far more than its predecessor, the 707. It also had amazing range, allowing airlines to fly nonstop between faraway cities.

The Seattle Times article quotes some of the many people who designed, built, and were involved in the 747’s long run, and who are obviously proud of what they accomplished with that one ground-breaking model. They should be, of course. The 747 was a plane that revolutionized international air travel and made it what modern travelers have come to expect. As its long run comes to an end, it is worth remembering the creativity, ingenuity, and hard work that produced it–and hoping that those same qualities can be employed to produce another, newer quantum leap in travel technology.

Pre-Dawn Cacti

I had to get up super-early today to catch a flight, and stopped on my way to my rental car to take this photo of some cacti around our hotel.

Marana, Arizona is, intentionally, a “dark” community with minimal lighting to avoid light pollution and facilitate better viewing of stars. Desert darkness is about as absolutely dark as it gets. The stars stand out in sharp relief, to be sure, while the giant saguaros are ghostly figures in the gloom, unless you use a flash as I did here.

The night and early morning hours are apparently a favorite time for gangs of Javelina to prowl the neighborhood, although I didn’t see any on my way to the parking lot. I was happy about that, because I’m not sure I would know how to deal with a nighttime encounter with a herd of wild, pig-like creatures.

Making The Bed

A stay in a hotel reminds you that there are different approaches to making a bed. At home, you might simply do a few quick tugs here and there to make sure that the sheets and blankets are reasonably straightened, and return the pillows to their position at the head of the bed—but hotel bed-making is a much more rigorous exercise.

The maid in our hotel in Tucson apparently belongs to the precise, Army basic training/a quarter must bounce off the sheets school of bed-making. The sheets are stretched so taut and have been cinched so tightly under the mattress that it takes a few good heaves just to loosen the sheets enough to actually get into bed. It looks neat, but is kind of a pain in the keister—although you’ve got to give the maid an A for effort.

Have you ever wondered why the act of arranging the sheets is called “making” the bed?

Imaginary Voyages

The Austin airport is pretty darned cool, with some little touches that bored travelers who are walking around while waiting for their flights will appreciate–like this mock “Interimaginary Departures” board found at Gate 14. It changes just like your standard departures board, only the destinations are fictional locations from literature, film, TV, comic books, video games, and other elements of popular culture. The airlines are fictional too, of course, but very cleverly named. And all flights leave from Gate Infinity.

For example, you could catch a flight to Gotham City on DystopiAir, or head to Hogwarts on Spellbound Airlines, or visit the Hundred-Acre Wood on Wistful. I’d avoid the flight to Isla Nublar on GossAmerica, myself. On the other hand, I admit to being tempted by the chance to experience the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the known universe, so I would probably grab a seat on the 11:07 to Tattoine in order to check out the Mos Eisley spaceport.

I’ve included photos of two of the many boards with this post. Somebody obviously had a lot of fun with this great idea.

The destinations on the “Interimaginary Departures” board are a kind of litmus test of your awareness of different elements of popular culture, and I am sad to say that I am not aware of many of them. How many of the references do you recognize? And, like me, if you see a destination you haven’t experienced through books or movies or comics, are you motivated to check them out?

Froot Loops

Our hotel in Austin had a great breakfast bar that included an omelet-to-order option, freshly baked biscuits, and lots of other tasty breakfast options—including two gigantic containers of Froot Loops. The cereal must be popular in Texas, because two of the three dry cereal options were Froot Loops. The other was Raisin Bran.

I successfully resisted the temptation to chow down on a bowl of Froot Loops, but it was a challenge, because one of my childhood memories involves that cereal. In the early’60s Grandma and Grandpa Neal took UJ and me on a trip to Battle Creek, Michigan, where we took a tour of the Kellogg’s cereal factory. At the end of the tour Kellogg’s served every visitor with a little dish of vanilla ice cream topped with Froot Loops, which had just been introduced. I liked my Froot Loops sundae very much and asked Mom to buy the cereal when we got home—which I’m sure is what Kellogg’s was hoping for. (I liked Toucan Sam, too.)

Froot Loops remains a favorite cereal to this day, although my metabolism doesn’t permit me to eat it anymore.

Dinner With The Killer Bs

Years ago, I went to dinner with a business associate who knew a lot about Italian wines. He took control of the crucial wine-ordering responsibilities at our meal, studied the wine list carefully before ordering a bottle, inspected the bottle when the waiter delivered it, instructed the waiter to decant the wine, and then noted that we would let it breathe for 15 minutes or so. When I remarked on his impressive command of the wine-ordering function, he shrugged and responded: “In reality, all you really need to know about Italian wines is the three Bs — Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco.”

I’ve always remembered that lesson in fine wines, although I quickly realized that “The Killer Bs”–as those three wines are known among at least some wine lovers–must regrettably be reserved for very special occasions, because they are pricey. Last night was just such a special occasion, as we celebrated the new year and a wonderful performance by the Austin Symphony Orchestra and, especially, its principal oboist. We went to a terrific restaurant called It’s Italian Cucina, had a very fine meal, and the sommelier selected two bottles–a Brunello followed by the Barolo above–to accompany our dinner. (There were only four of us at dinner, so we couldn’t reasonably complete the Killer B trifecta with a Barbaresco.)

I don’t have an educated wine palate, but it wasn’t hard to conclude that we were enjoying some pretty spectacular wines. The taste of the Brunello changed and ripened and became even more delectable as it continued to breathe in the decanter, and the Barolo was simply wonderful and went perfectly with our main courses. It was great to be able to enjoy a fun celebration with the Killer Bs. I definitely look forward to the next opportunity to implement my friend’s wise advice.