Travel Perfection

Convio welcome banner in Austin

Welcoming the Summit attendees to the greatest city in Texas.

Yesterday I flew from BOS to AUS to attend the Convio Summit. Possibly one of my favorite things about working for a nonprofit that utilizes Convio is that they hold annual meetings in the greatest city in Texas, and arguably one of the greatest cities in the US.

The tricky part is getting here.

From Boston there are very few direct flights. The only one I could find was on JetBlue and it only goes once a day. So I opted for American (always close to my heart and even closer now that I’m inching towards reaching status again this year). That of course means a layover in Chicago or Dallas. Big D it was.

On my 2.5 hour layover I got a chance to navigate the bus system of DFW and have lunch with my parents in the new Grand Hyatt at Terminal A (something I highly recommend). (We chose that because it’s among the only spots not past security where I could meet them.) I also got a chance to rekindle my love-affair with Texan apparel. Being born and bred in Texas, there is something magical about stepping into DFW and becoming part of a glorious maze of cowboy hats, tight jeans, and boots complimented by ‘I love Texas’ stores, big blonde hair, and Sonny Bryan’s BBQ. I may not take advantage of any Texan clothing on a daily basis in Boston, but I have to say, I miss it.

I also miss the weather. During the lunch in Dallas, dark clouds were rolling in. Not a thunderstorm but a cooler front of air. Landing in Austin an hour later it was still warm, but the breeze was picking up and you could sense a change in the air. This morning, the temperature had slipped into the mid-50s with a strong breeze. The trees bent and swayed as flags around the capitol buildings snapped in the wind.

The trip down here ended up being long, but pretty pleasant (and shockingly no delays). Now it’s time to enjoy Austin, learn a lot at the conference, rock out during my presentation on Wednesday, and not think too hard about the 6am flight back on Thursday…

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There are several airlines that despite my bumpy history of delays with (ahem, American, Southwest), I still really like. Yesterday, a new favorite airline was added to the list: South African Airways.

I’ve flown SAA before. Seven years ago I jumped SAA flights from Kenya to South Africa for a holiday with some friends after my study abroad and we also used SAA internally when we arrived. I had thought at the time the airline was great, but now I think they’re really great.

When my mom and I arrived at JFK on Saturday morning, we were greeted warmly and the SAA team went out of their way to be of assistance–even running after me through the terminal (and I still have no idea how they found us in a random duty free shop) to let me know they had kindly blocked the seat next to me (my mom was travelling in a different section of the flight and I couldn’t upgrade to sit with her so they offered this as an alternative). Really too much. I was incredibly impressed by how nice each of the team members were.

Once on the plane (an Airbus 340) I was pretty blown away by how different SAA is as a carrier (and how great the Airbus 340 was). The plane had:

  • A plethora of drinks throughout the 15 hour flight
  • Two very hearty and fairly decent meals (for plane food)
  • Free packets of eye covers, socks, toothpaste/toothbrush
  • Nice blankets and pillows still in plastic wrap
  • Advice on different exercises, stretching and fluid intake
  • Your own personal screen not just with pre-running movies, but with a wide selection of movies, tv shows, free games, and much more that you could stop, start, fast forward, and pause anytime you want!

I almost didn’t know what to do with myself! It was probably the most comfortable long flight I’ve ever taken. And that is a big statement. So, today, South African Airways, I salute you. Now I’m excited to see what the internal flights have in store…

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Gotta love the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame

Gotta love the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame

One of my favorite songs has always been ‘Taking the Long Way’ by the Dixie Chicks. I don’t particularly like country music, but the Chicks seem to bring out my multi-generation Texan DNA. I’ve always felt their songs speak certain truths about Texas, and simultaneously celebrate kicking that stereotype in the butt. (My Dad’s name is Earl but he’s never so much as harmed a fly).

In many ways, ‘Taking the Long Way’ has almost been my personal anthem. The song kicks off, “My friends from high school/Married their high school boyfriends/ Moved into houses in the same ZIP codes/Where their parents live.” Luckily most of my high school friends did not marry their high school boyfriends. However, culturally, it always seemed to me that there was a big push that what starts in Texas should stay in Texas. Many of my friends’ parents offered them incentives to stay in state for college–or even in the same city. A lot of people I grew up with never so much as traveled outside of the South, much less the state. Even in an age where DFW is a  major international hub and Houston is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the US–Texans still tend to celebrate all things Texas and find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to leave.

My parents never embraced that. We traveled regularly–not far–but enough so that my brother and I saw outside of the boundaries of the pan handle, hill country, and plains. And they encouraged us to go to school outside of Texas.

So I moved up North. And I experienced ‘the long way’ every time I made the 1,600 mile drive from Dallas to Poughkeepsie–traveling through East Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, the Eastern Seaboard and up into the snowy Hudson Valley–and then back home. It was a long way away. It was not in a pink RV. And it was tough.

There were hippies (thanks Vassar), and Irish (thanks Boston), and Queens (both the borough and again, Vassar), some ass kissing that I refused, and definitely some times when the world came crashing down around me (9/11 New York, 11/28 Mombasa, and 7/7 London). Still, I’ve kept taking different paths and not settling down.

But over the years I’ve realized that taking the long way ’round is not refuting some sort of Texan pull–or my Texan DNA. There are plenty of people I’ve met all over the world who live in their parents’ zip code, have not traveled outside of their state (or their region), who are comfortable just settling for what’s right in front of them. For many, that’s what makes them happy. And that’s what’s important.

Traveling, moving, shifting, taking the road less traveled is what has always made me happy.

Two of my close friends laughed when I started tearing up at the National Cowgirl Museum in Fort Worth last winter. Enlarged on a screen in front of us, an old cowgirl with crinkled skin and an oversized, roughed-up beltbuckle talked about the ‘spirit of the cowgirl’ as she sauntered across the plains toward her horse. But that oversized, cheesy moment really hit me. Maybe taking the long way around really is the Texan, Dixie, Cowgirl Chick spirit in me. Maybe someday I’m gonna settle down. But in the mean time, I still love taking the long way, taking the long way around.

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This morning as I was running out the door late to work, I paused on our stoop, convinced I had left something inside. Keys? Cell phone? Lunch? Check, check, and check. As I rifled through my purse I thought this pause has cost me a bus. After 8:30, the 57 bus is notorious for being sporadic and in some ways nonexistent. During that one pause, I pretty much gave up the idea that I would be on time to a 9am meeting.

Boston Bus by bradless9119 (Flickr)

Boston Bus by bradless9119 (Flickr)

Sure enough, as I walked up the street toward the bus stop, I heard the puffing psssssss and screech of bus breaks—a sure sign there was a bus only a few yards around the upcoming corner. Please don’t be a 57, please don’t be a 57. I decided to run for it. Then stopped. What’s the point? It’s probably not a 57 anyway. Then I saw, in the opposing store front reflection, the bus start to pull away. The side number quickly appeared as the bus pulled forward…5…7. Shit. The pause. It was the pause on the stoop. Minus the pause on the stoop I would be on that bus.

But amazingly, the world surprised me today. Perhaps leftover karma from my perfect flight last Friday? Perhaps just the 57 bus deciding to throw me a bone? Or the act of someone who just likes to help out? Whatever it was, as I walked dejectedly up to the bus stop, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a 57A approaching.

Usually the 57A is my nemesis. While the 57 runs from Kenmore to Watertown Yard and back. The 57A runs from Kenmore to Oak Square, thus not making it all the way to my final destination. The MBTA thought the 57A would be a handy solution to turning buses around faster (because theoretically less traffic goes from Oak Square to Watertown Yard). However, for commuters like me who are interested in going to the end of the line, each time a 57A comes by, it’s simply another bus that looks like it will take you where you want to go, but won’t. I have had many a day where the 57A taunts me bus after bus after bus, with no 57 in sight.

This time however, I decided to jump on the 57A and see if I could grab the 57 in front of it. Perhaps a long shot, I figured giving chase was better than waiting at the bus stop for the next half hour cursing the 57.

As the doors opened, the bus driver said, “Only going to Oak Square.” I jumped on and smiled to the bus driver, “Actually I’m trying to catch that other bus.” As I stepped past him to grab the nearest handle, he got on his radio. Although I couldn’t make out what he said, it sounded like he was signaling another bus. This was a first. In other attempts to do the same bus to bus switch, I’ve been told the drivers don’t have radios to be able to reach one another (either the other driver just didn’t have a radio or the MBTA has upgraded?).

The driver moved forward to the next stop, but then pulled over. Huh? With only two passengers on the bus (myself and an older gentleman), no one had called for a stop. The driver murmured something that I couldn’t make out.

Looking around, I realized that the driver had blocked in a 501 bus behind us (I guess he thought I had wanted that one instead?). “Oh, I’m actually trying to grab the 57 up ahead,” I said. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, the bus driver had his foot on the gas and his hand on the horn. The chase was on.

The 57 ahead had rounded a curve in the road far in front of us, but that didn’t stop my driver from beep, beep, beeping his way down Washington Street. Swerving around small cars and a small SUV making a turn, he continued quick beeps, his palm pumping on the steering wheel.

My hand gripped the bar tighter and a smile started to appear. This guy is going for it!

“We’ll get him!” he said and the bus continued to lumber forward. I smiled more fully. Here we go! Since passengers were either getting on the 57 ahead or had no interest in just going to Oak Square, my 57A rocketed toward the square, rumbling around curves, and accelerating at any and all spots possible. It was one of the fastest, most aggresive bus driving I’ve ever seen. We pulled up behind the other 57 at Oak Square just as it was putting its turn signal on to pull away from the bus stop. But the chase was not over yet. The bus in front was starting to pull out.

Beep. BEEP. BEEEEEEEEP. My bus driver frantically laid on his horn (probably concerning more than a few of the passing cars).

“Hold on there buddy!” the driver called out, waving his hand at the bus in front. Before we came to a full stop, he had the doors open, I was sprinting off the 57A, giving a breathless “Thank you!” to the previous driver and tumbling toward the semi-open doors of the clearly annoyed 57. Yes!

As I stepped up onto the waiting bus, the new driver didn’t give me even the slightest glance. He was not a fan of being flagged down apparently.

I didn’t care. I was just ecstatic that the 57A driver had gone so wonderfully, and comically above and beyond by giving chase—and as a side note, saved my morning. I made it to the office in time for my meeting, but more importantly the smile I had from his wonderful act of kindness lasted all day.

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Friday night was an example of travel as it should be. I was heading to Dallas for a weekend helping my family move and I was on a tight schedule. A 5:40PM flight down south on American, two days of intense moving, and a 6:35AM flight back to Boston Monday morning (to be back in the office by 11). I hadn’t left myself a whole lot of room for error.

I’m not sure if it’s just that my expectations are just so low at this point, but I was bowled over by how smoothly everything moved along. I left the office at 3:40, was home by 3:51, in the car with my bags by 4:02, and at the airport by 4:20. Having printed my boarding pass earlier in the afternoon, I was through security and incredulous that there were no delays by 4:30. What to do with myself?! So much time! No delays!

I meandered through the new American terminal in Logan where I ran into a work colleague on her way to Italy. We commiserated over Alitalia lost luggage horror stories as she nodded at her carry-on holding two weeks worth of clothing. I nodded at my carry-on holding my weekend of clothing—they were the same size.

Marveling at her deft packing abilities, I continued my lazy walk around the terminal, ears attuned to the loudspeaker, waiting for the inevitable announcement that my flight was delayed. I glanced at the departing flights teleprompters and noted the glowing red of other delayed flights. In fact, the Dallas flight after mine was delayed. Yet mine, remarkably, was still listed as on time.

Silently I scoffed. Surely, on a busy Friday night, with rainy weather up and down the Eastern seaboard, we would have some kind of delay? I watched the rain softly spreading itself over the tarmac, creating pools of shiny wetness. Still, planes moved along with no signs of slowing their gliding patterns of take off and landing.

By 5:15, I was on the plane with unfries, some kind of new healthy yogurt (Uberry I think?) and a delicious feta, cranberry, nut and mixed green salad in hand. And amazingly, the plane was a 757! Almost every flight recently I’ve taken on American (no matter the length) has been on an MD-80. Don’t get me wrong, MD-80s are fine. But for flights longer than 2.5 to 3 hours, MD-80s can get pretty boring. On American, MD-80s have no TVs, and are generally older. I had the fun experience on travelling solely on MD-80s back and forth to California in April and no matter how much you love reading, writing, doodling, creating Excel spreadsheets, napping, and playing every game imaginable on your computer, eventually your computer battery dies, napping gets old, your eyes go cross-eyed from the reading, and you are left staring at the back of the seat in front of you.

I was thrilled, thrilled to be on a 757 with more leg room….and movies! Then, almost as if American was intentionally playing with my heart, I discovered after take off that not only are there TVs, American has now partnered with NBC Universal to provide in-flight entertainment. Goodbye CBS “Eye on American,” hello SNL, The Office, The Today Show, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and more! [This actually began in March, but given the fact that I have been stuck in perpetuity on MD-80s, I missed the announcement.]

I was shocked. What sort of parallel reality am I living in? The flight is on time, it’s on a bigger plane, the in-flight entertainment has ramped up in all kinds of fun ways, I’m not in a middle seat, and I discovered a new delicious yogurt in the American terminal!

Then it happened. They shut the door of the plane on time, but as they pulled the ramp away, the plane didn’t move. We sat. Oooooook, here it comes. The routine I’ve grown to know so well. I waited for the announcement from the pilot to let us know what sort of delay we’d be facing.




Fifteen minutes of nothing as I nibbled my unfries. Still no announcement from the pilot. The flight attendants had run through their security announcements, but no word about the delay.

Then we moved. So slowly at first, I don’t even realize we were pulling away from the gate. And then speed. We lumbered with determined swiftness toward the runway. No planes ahead of us. In the blink of an eye, we were in the air, bursting through rain clouds as the plane struggled to get above the storm.

Despite a few bumps as we reached cruising altitude, the weather did not affect the flight at all. In fact, midway through (as I reveled in the enjoyment 30 Rock), the pilot came on to announce that in fact we would be in Dallas early. What?! I pulled my ear buds out to see if I heard correctly. Early?! Not possible.

Texas sunset from a window seat

Texas sunset from a window seat

Indeed. We began our initial descent at 7:30 (Central) and were taxi-ing to the gate by 8:05. Then, to cap off the perfect travel, a final unbelievable moment—sunset. As we moved toward the gate, a magnificent spread of open prairie sky with fierce blazes of crimson, yellow and orange set off the outline of DFW. I gasped. I forgot how much I love the vast open sky over Texas. I struggled to get my dinky phone to capture the beauty of the moment. Alas, it’s measly camera feature was not up to the task. But the memory remains. The perfect flight. The perfect homecoming.

(Unfortunately the return trip was not so perfect…stay tuned.)

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If there are extensive delays on one end of a trip, oftentimes it seems the other end flies by. Not in Philly. The Philadelphia Airport is not known for ease of travel. Over the last few years, several of my trips down there have resulted in cancelled flights or me camping out in the airport (or friends’ houses) for extended periods waiting for weather to clear, runways to open, or planes to become available. With a 4.5 hour delay on the front end, I was pretty much preparing for the worst on the back end.

Maybe it was the positive vibes from all the weekend law school graduation celebrating. Or maybe it was simply that this time, rather than hopping the last flight out, I booked an early flight on Memorial Day before the delays could start to set in. Whatever it was, from leaving the apartment and jumping in a Philly Car Share to arriving at the airport and getting through security, there were no delays or events. In fact, I breezed through to the gate and was left with an hour of pure ahead-of-time hang out sans delays—a first in I don’t even know how long. I was so shocked by my stress-free, no-problems-on-the-horizon waiting, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself.

So I stood at the gate, did some people watching and made calls. As our departure time approached, I was suddenly called out of my happy reverie by a vision out of the corner of my eye. With no delays and clear skies, I was already very happy with the way things were shaping up. Then things changed.

Southwest's Shamu 1

Southwest's Shamu 1

Taxing to the gate was a mammoth of black and white. I had no idea my day could get more exciting. Not only was my flight on time, my flight was to be aboard the specially painted Shamu Southwest plane (nick-named Shamu1)!

For most people, this would probably not be a notable travel moment. Who cares if your plane is painted with Shamu? Seriously, it’s just a killer whale. For me however, this was a moment I hadn’t had for probably 15-20 years. Growing up, my family always travelled Southwest around Texas. It was the way to get back and forth to visit friends and relatives in South Texas. In particular, we often flew Southwest to visit my grandparents in San Antonio (where Sea World is located). And it just so happened that they had a family membership to the park. I used to watch every plane on the runway to see if Shamu would be our plane while travelling. I thought it was the coolest thing to fly the Shamu plane to San Antonio and then actually go to the park. Because really, what’s cooler than flying in the belly of a giant killer whale when you’re eight? Not much.