Friday, May 27, 2011

Still Life with Robin: When There's No Straight Line Between Point A and Point B

by Peggy Robin

The past couple of months have involved some odd and impromptu trips, either for me or for members of my family. Whether I was the passenger or not, I was the one doing the online booking. I won’t say it came as a total shock (more of a sigh of disappointment) to discover that if you are not traveling a well-worn path, it can be both cumbersome and expensive to chart a path to certain out-of-the-way destinations. Unless, of course, you have a car at your disposal. In all three of these cases, for one reason or another (too complicated to go into in this space), driving was not an option.

Case #1: Claremont, California. It’s about fifty miles east of LAX, so what’s the problem? Well, if you are arriving or departing during any of the hours that could conceivably be regarded as rush hour -- and in L.A., that stretches from 2:30 in the afternoon to about 8:30 in the evening -- a route that Google maps pegs at 58 minutes could easily turn into two-and-a-half hours. But remember I said, no driving, so now we’re talkiing about a cab fare or car service fee that would certainly clock in at triple digits. As for mass transit: Yes, there are buses, but I’m not savvy enough to work out the transfers from my desktop here in DC.

So I come up with Plan B, to find a closer airport and look into making that the flight destination. Immediately three other choices appear plausible: Long Beach Airport, at 41 miles; John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, at 39 miles distant; and Ontario Airport, less than 10 miles away. Well, clearly, Ontario is clearly the right choice, but now I’m jumping around various airline websites looking for cheap flights offered by airlines that don't provide their flight data to Kayak or Expedia. Jet Blue used to fly to Ontario but they've apparently stopped flying that route just when I could use it. Southwest is a possiblity, but that means leaving from BWI. And of course, a change of planes on the way there. Even worse, it's two changes of planes on the way back. But that seems to be the best I can do, so I take what I can get. Now for the outcome: There were considerable flight delays on both the way there and the way back, with the saving grace that the delayed flights on the way back meant that it didn't matter that one plane arrived hours later than it was supposed to, because the connecting flight was equally delayed in taking off. Whew. 

Case #2: Middletown, Connecticut. I imagined this trip would be a lot simpler than a trip to a small town on the West Coast. Middletown, after all, is just six and a half hours away by car. If there were time to drive (there wasn't), that would have been the best way to go. Still, I thought there would be lots of good options. There's the plane to Hartford (Southwest again), and there the Amtrak train to New Haven. The problem in both cases is that cab fare from the airport or the train station is in the sixty-five to eighty-five dollar range. Wow. That's more than the cost of the flight on Southwest from BWI to Hartford: The web special is just $39. On the other hand, the web special is not available as a last minute fare. The only fare that can be booked is $169 each way. Gee, for that price, I figured I could buy a round trip from National airport on a non-discount airline like American or US Air. Think again! A non-stop last minute fare on US Air is $453, while on American is $606! So Southwest seems the way to go. But that involves getting to BWI, and now we're back to the "no car" part of the puzzle. So you're either talking about an $85 car service charge, or figuring in an extra two and a half hours to take the subway to Union Station to the train to the shuttlebus. This trip is just too time-constrained for that.  Now we're looking at the $39 SuperShuttle to BWI. But we know from past experience that it's something of a gamble. They may be okay two out of three trips. There's always a big chance that you'll be stuck with a long, meandering pickup route, and the driver will get lost a bunch of times, or the shuttle won't show up when it's supposed to. We had previously sworn off the SuperShuttle for good reason, and then had given them a second chance, and regretted it. This time we're sticking to our guns.

So the plane is out. That leaves the train. There's sticker shock here as well. The Acela, with a last mintue purchase at the desired time, is $249 each way. The regional (a/k/a the "slow freight" is $149 each way. It adds about an hour each way to the trip (five and a half hours versus four and a half), but at a hundred bucks an hour, I'm thinking it's better to sit a while longer each way. There's still the big cost of cabfare from the New Haven train station to Middletown, but there seems no way around that.  So the train it is. The bottom line on the trip to a small town in Connecticut is that it ends up being just $130 cheaper than the roundtrip to a small town in California, when you figure the cab fares into the mix.

And now for Case #3, which is the clincher in my argument that you can't get there from here without a car: DC to Manteo, North Carolina.  The above two trips were complicated, because of multiplicity of airlines and train schedules to check -- too many choices. When it came time to book the Outer Banks trip for my daughter, we had the opposite problem. There are no flights, no trains. There is a bus, a Greyhound, that goes to a nearby town, Elizabeth City, but it's just once a day. You pick it up in Norfolk, VA at 8 am and it arrives in Elizabeth City, NC fifty minutes later. Getting to Norfolk from DC is the problem. You can take a Chinatown bus in afternoon, which would put you in Norfolk late in the evening, but then you'd need to stay overnight at some cheap Norfolk motel near the Greyhound station to be able to get on the 8am bus to Elizabeth City in the morning. The only alternative seems to be to take the Greyhound bus that leaves DC late in the evening and change in Richmond in the dead of night to another bus that goes to Norfolk, arriving in time to make the 8 am change to the Elizabeth City bus. That would be a nine and a half hour all-nighter on a Greyhound, with two changes, to get someplace that everyone else does in a four-and-a-half hour car trip.  

There's got to be another way. I'm muttering to myself, "There must be a train!" I decide to reinvestigate this option, and this time, knowing about the existence of the Greyhound bus from Norfolk to Elizabeth City, I manage to find a route from Union Station to Newport News that might just work out. From there my daughter could get herself to the Greyhound station, take the bus to Norfolk, and then change to the Elizabeth City bus. That's not so bad, is it?  My hand was hovering over the "submit" button to buy the Amtrak ticket, just about to accept a non-refundable fare, when a miracle occurred. A very lowgrade miracle, to be sure, but gratefully accepted all the same. The phone rang, and on the line was the mom of another kid going on same North Carolina trip as my daughter. And like my daughter, that kid, due to another commitment that could not be rescheduled, was making the trip a day later than the other kids and so had not been able to join another carpool. So the mom decided to drive her son to North Carolina herself, and she was more than happy to give my daughter a ride at the same time. Great! Now there's no need to book any of these poor choices. She is on her way, as I type this.

Here's the part I never told my daughter. While I was willing to put her on a train and then two bus rides to get her to her destination, or even a nine and a half hour bus ride, I certainly wasn't happy about the prospect. I remember all too well the time I took a trip like that. I was eighteen myself, and taking the all-night Greyhound bus to Ann Arbor. My seatmate for the bulk of the trip was a seriously intoxicated young man, who, I learned as he poured out his life story to me, had been drummed out of the Army on some "trumped up rape charge" -- as he explained it. As we passed through one desolate small town after another, and he revealed more details of this great injustice against him (in his mind), I found myself becoming ever more sympathetic to the (unheard) prosecution side of the story, and by the time he got off somewhere past Chicago, remember concluding that he had done remarkably well to avoid any jail time. By the end of the trip I considered myself lucky, too, that he hadn't become sick all over the seat. I had my hesitation about sending my daughter off on a similar adventure. She would have been undaunted by the prospect, I'm sure, but for parental peace of mind, it was far better to send her off on a safe, sober ride with a responsible adult at the wheel and a friend on the seat beside her.

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