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February 22, 2009

Money Saving Travel Tips

In this economy we’re all looking to save money, especially on travel. So I’ve assembled a few tips I’ve learned over the years to keep you on the go while still saving dough.

Let’s consider a business day-trip to Washington, planned and booked one day in advance.

THE AIR SHUTTLES: You can’t beat the convenience, but it comes at a weighty cost. The walk-up one-way fare on the US Air Shuttle from LaGuardia is now $329 in coach (and $500 in First Class!). Given that flying time, gate to gate, is only an hour, this has to rank as one of the most expensive flights you can take out of NYC. But did you know that US Air is now part of the Star Alliance network so it code-shares its flights with United Airlines? A round-trip on the same US Air flights, booked through UAL, is $464. (PS: my last Shuttle flights were empty and even though pre-booked, the agent told me there’d be no problem catching an earlier or later flight.)

ALTERNATE AIRPORTS: If you’re willing to fly out of JFK, the savings are amazing… roundtrip on JetBlue is $116 and on Delta $137. And depending on where you’re heading in DC, flying into Dulles might save you time and money.

AMTRAK: Any regular reader of this column knows that I think Amtrak is the only way to “fly”, even to Washington. And you have plenty of trains to choose from departing New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford. The high-speed Acela would be my first pick, but Business Class (there is no “coach” fare) would set you back $412 roundtrip. And First Class on Acela is an additional $103 each way, adding up to $618 roundtrip.

A cheaper Am-alternative are the non-Acela “Northeast Regional” trains. Older, slower and making more stops, they’ll get you to DC in four hours and 35 minutes versus Acela’s three hours and fifty minutes… but coach is only $206 roundtrip. (I’d skip the $36 each way ‘upgrade’ to Business Class on these trains. All you get is a bit more leg-room and free sodas.)

AMTRAK DISCOUNTS: Amtrak rarely discounts its flagship Acela service, but it does offer AAA and NARP (Natl Assoc of Rail Passengers) members a 10% discount on bookings made three days in advance. Students, Seniors and Veterans can save 15%. Kids (age 2 – 15) travel half-price.

Amtrak’s “Guest Rewards” (frequent traveler) program is fabulous… and free. Rewards include free travel and, for heavy users, free upgrades for First Class, even on Acela. Last year I took a free trip, Chicago to LA, in a Deluxe Bedroom for two days and nights (including meals) on The Southwest Chief for free! If I’d paid for the trip it would’ve cost more than $1000.

WEB RESOURCES: My favorite online resource for comparing air fares (as well as hotels and car rentals) is www.kayak.com, a Norwalk-based travel website. (In the interest of full-disclosure, they’re a consulting client of mine… but that’s not why I give them a plug.) Kayak shows you all the flights on all the airlines, not just a few, so you can prioritize by schedule, airport or fare.

What’s your favorite money-saving tip for travel? Drop me a line and I’ll share it with others. Just e-mail me at jim@mediatrainer.tv

February 08, 2009

"Emergency Landing!"

Taking off out of LaGuardia last week, my thoughts were of the recent US Air crash in the Hudson River. Maybe it was because I was flying the same airline and the same kind of jet. Or because I’ve always had a fear of flying.

But a couple of years ago, I was on a flight that really made an emergency landing. It wasn’t frightening and, in fact, made me feel a little safer in the skies.

Delta flight 222, a half-empty 767 bound from Atlanta to La Guardia, was more than half-way to its destination when I heard a beeping sound. Assuming some idiot had left his cell phone on, I wasn’t too concerned. Then, more beeping, this time from the rear of the plane. Concerned flight attendants scurried around trying to find the source. It turns out that most of the plane’s smoke detectors were going off, simultaneously.

There was no smell of smoke. (Believe me… I was sniffing furiously), but the captain whipped on the seat belt sign and said we were diverting. “A cockpit warning light”, was the way she put it, adding that she just wanted to “be safe.” Sounded good to me.

As we decended rapidly from 35,000 feet, dodging the thunderstorms, she told us that we’d be landing in Richmond. Fine… It’s a small airport and this is a big plane … just get us down!

During the decent, she reminded us to follow the instructions of the flight attendants “who are really onboard for your safety.” Really… not just to offer us pretzels for dinner? The attendants remained calm, but not having a script to work from, had to ad lib their instructions.

“Stay seated. Don’t get up until told to. Don’t open the emergency exits unless instructed. If an emergency evacuation is necessary, leave all luggage on board. And when we land, don’t be dismayed at the emergency equipment that we will see…”

Sure enough, Richmond Airport’s entire Fire Rescue Department turned out to greet us, racing down the runway as we landed. When we touched down (probably the first 767 ever to land at RIC), they surrounded us, nozzles aimed at our craft. With no smoke evident, we taxied near the terminal and stopped.

Air stairs were brought up and slowly, we all deplaned, walking past respirator-wearing firefighters who’d come on board. A short walk across the tarmac and we were in the terminal.

We all stood by, noses pressed to the windows watching the fire crews as they inspected our plane, running hoses into the baggage hold, but finding neither smoke nor fire.

While hoards of day-tripping business-people whipped out their cell phones and Blackberries, trying to find another flight, I consulted my Amtrak timetable and contemplated a long train ride home the next morning.

Angst was everywhere, but surprisingly there was no “air rage”. All the passengers were pretty mellow about the situation. In fact, we bonded. We all applauded when one guy’s cell phone rang and he learned that his wife had just delivered twins.
Soon, a Delta DC-9 arrived and a couple hours later we were on our way home to LGA, arriving just before a midnight curfew.

I never did find out what was wrong with our original plane. A small story on AP just referenced the “cockpit warning light,” but I knew better.

Fast forward to this week and I’m listening to a replay of the air traffic controller and US Air crew handling the emergency water landing and I’m struck with one thought… maybe two.

Facing a potential disaster, both the pilots and the controllers sounded amazingly calm and professional. They followed their training and nobody died.
Maybe flying isn’t as scary as I’d always thought.