Slovenia’s startling delights

September 20, 2022

After enduring today’s nearly normalized air travel pains and punishments to get to Slovenia (documented in three previous posts here, here, and here), my wife and I landed finally at the Ljubljana Airport (LJU) mid-afternoon on the last day of August.  The view of surrounding peaks and green vistas on approach was lovely and promising.  My Avis car was waiting, and we soon sped off in the direction of Lake Bled, our first stop in Slovenia.

Bled has real charm:  It’s more than just first impressions of Slovenia that make Lake Bled so appealing. After all, this was a favorite haunt of even the roughhewn Yugoslavian dictator Marshal Tito during his long reign in this part of the former Eastern European Soviet bloc behind the Iron Curtain.

Tito entertained infamous communist luminaries such as Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro at his lakeside villa here, now a hotel. I have to wonder what the tough and bloody commissar Krushchev, the man Stalin relied upon to successfully defend Stalingrad against Hitler’s siege during World War II, must have thought of this nearly perfect, placid place.

Reminiscent of Germany and Austria, yet with a distinctive Slovenian character. We love it. The photos tell the tale. Penzion Mayer, where we stayed, is shown in the 2nd and 3rd pictures. My wife Ruth, is standing on our balcony in the third one below.

We were lucky that first evening to snag a table at Old Cellar. It’s booked solid for weeks. About which next week when I will sing the praises of dining in Slovenia and Croatia.

Bled farmhouse

As evening gathered, we planned the following day:  In the morning, a hiking adventure through a nearby gorge reputed to be stunningly beautiful, and the following afternoon we’d take a boat to the small island in the center.

After a few drizzles the first day, we found overcast skies the next morning, September 1st.  But low-hanging clouds in the Julian Alps of Slovenia didn’t deter us from enjoying the perfect day in and near Bled.

First, a hearty breakfast at the Penzion Mayer. We presented ourselves at 730am and were astonished at the huge spread. The smorgasbord of breads, fruits, cheeses, cured meats, jams, yogurts, and juices was rich and varied. Topped off with eggs made to order with several salamis and a coffee machine that produced perfect cappuccino, latte, and espresso. The croissants were as flaky as in France, and the brötchen as fresh and delicious as in Deutschland. It was hard not to overeat.

We burned off breakfast calories walking for nearly two hours around Lake Bled. Along the way, we had great views of the island in the lake, the only natural island in all of Slovenia. The photos above and below offer different perspectives of the island as we circled Lake Bled. 

Afterward, we drove our Arona rental car (made by a VW subsidiary in Spain) to nearby Vintgar Gorge. Though it was fun to drive the car’s 6-speed manual, Google lists the Arona as one of the 37 cars to avoid ever buying. No matter to us; we were just renting.

I do love driving a stick on the twisty, narrow European local roads, especially in little towns with virtually no visibility around 270° blind turns. Never know if I’ll encounter a farm tractor, an S Class Mercedes going too fast, a herd of milk cows, or a gaggle of cyclists practicing for their next weekend 100 km ride. Driving was as much fun as just being there and reminded me of the many pleasures of being in Euroland.

The Vintgar Gorge was crowded with cars from every part of Europe. I was surprised it was so busy on a Thursday and in the month of September—post the usual Euro vacation months.

The cost was €17 (charged online in advance for a specific entrance time) to walk the gorge’s impressive boardwalks and trails, plus €5 cash to park the car. We began the trail at 1245p and left the gorge at 125p to return to the carpark.

However, the gorge trail was strictly one-way in, and it wasn’t apparent until we headed out that the way back required lots of steep uphill climbs punctuated by equally precipitous and rocky downhills.  I was moaning and groaning incessantly by the time we arrived back at the parking lot at 230p. Ruth was patient and sweet to tolerate my muttered curses. I was just glad not to have tripped on the rocks going down.

The gorge was well worth my geezer travail, and I’d do it again (not sure Ruth would want to hear me gripe so much, though). Our frequent trips to Montana include a lot of comparable nature trails and hikes, and each one is a treasure. This one was unique and beautiful, as the pictures illustrate.

We then rested in our comfortable room at Penzion Mayer for a bit before heading to nearby Lake Bled for a boat trip to the island.

Ruth desired to take a boat to the small island in Lake Bled. Honestly, I was not excited about it. Only when we had left the dock did I begin to feel the utter tranquility of the experience and share the peacefulness with Ruth. She was right, and I’m so glad we did it.

The above photo is the view from Lake Bled island looking over to the Hotel Villa Bled, formerly Tito’s palatial digs (mentioned above). In the foreground of the picture is our traditional Lake Bled boat, called a pletna, used exclusively by licensed oarsmen to ferry up to 16 passengers to the island.

Pletna flat-bottomed boats on Lake Bled are said to have been a tradition since the 12th century. Just 23 oarsmen are licensed. They use two oars from a unique standing position to row the seven-meter boats.

It’s an impressive technique, as the next photo shows. You can see the church on the island as we began our return to Bled.

I was amused to witness our pletna oarsman immersed in a Slovenian polka video on his smartphone with the sound at full volume while waiting for passengers to reassemble at the island landing. It was a slice of real Slovenian life, as polka music was reputedly invented there and still much enjoyed.

The cost for the round-trip boat trip was €15 per person ($15 at the current exchange rate).

The following morning we went on seaside Piran on the Adriatic for two more nights with a stop in the Julian Alps on the way.  I’ll report on that glorious experience in a future post.

Who knew Slovenia was so beautiful and its people so charming?  I arrived with an open mind, expecting to have fun, but was still swept off my feet. 

Good service on Air France to Ljubljana

September 15, 2022

Following are my real-time notes made Tuesday and Wednesday, August 30-31, documenting my Air France flights JFK to Paris and connecting CDG to Ljubljana:

Air France AF7 JFK/CDG (777)

We made it to Air France and are now inside security. Took 90 minutes from the time our flight landed at JFK Terminal 8 (American) to get to Terminal 1 (Air France) on the JFK Air Train, get our boarding passes, and endure the conga line at security. But, unlike Delta, Air France got TSA Pre correct on our boarding passes AND reinstated my precious seat assignments. Now recuperating at the Priority Pass primeclass lounge near gate 8 from the stressful morning (documented in last week’s post).

At the gate, I was impressed with the simple, yet effective, method Air France uses to board planes.  Queues are set up for groups 1 (business class), 2 (premium economy), and then 3-4-5.  Reminds me of Southwest.  We are due to depart at 1930 (730p) and are boarding on time.

My wife and I were first in the Group 2 line, so first to enter Premium Economy. Premium Economy seats were comfortable and roomy. Plenty of pitch (distance between rows) and generous legroom. Not the claustrophobia of coach seats. Cushy blankets and large pillows were provided. We needed the blankets later, along with our jackets, when the cabin turned cold and stayed that way.

Hardwired “noise-canceling” headphones worked well enough to watch videos and dampen the baby’s incessant screaming some rows to the rear.

Bottles of Evian at our seats were refilled as needed. 

Small but adequate flight kits were distributed with the usual items: socks, eye shade, earplugs, toothbrush, and paste, etc. Plus Covid stuff (mask, wipes).

Boarding went smoothly and efficiently; buttoned up on time at 730p. But didn’t push back until nearly 800p and were not airborne until 905p (90 minutes late). Not weather-related; entirely JFK ground congestion of many aircraft jockeying for the runway.

No service until 1025p, a long interval after takeoff. Then an all-at-once dinner and beverages arrived.  Flight attendants came back at 1050p to clean up & offer 2nd rounds.

Monopole Champagne offered!  But disappointingly served at room temp.

Ruth got a very sad vin rouge labeled as from France. Not quite insipid. We drank it, though. Any port in a storm.

So-so tray meal of either veal (tasty) or pumpkin gratin (boring) entree, weird “salad” (spit-out bad), a nearly stale roll made palatable by rich butter, pretzels (pretzels? On Air France?), a rubbery wedge of cheddar wrapped in plastic (too salty; unworthy to be called a French cheese), and a mango-coconut custardy dessert with a graham cracker crust (best part of the meal).

Uninspiring movie list, but “Reservoir Dogs” didn’t disappoint (haven’t seen it in at least 10 years). I’d forgotten that Tarantino’s character gets a bullet in the head.

“Breakfast” came one hour before landing in a small bag unceremoniously dumped at our seats. The contents were frigid and the appearance unappetizing. Okay, I didn’t expect much on a seven-hour flight in a cabin that includes the word “economy.” But this IS Air FRANCE, after all. Not even a croissant?

Nope. Instead, a day-old mushy mini-muffin that must have fallen off the prison farm food truck. Along with a hard roll accompanied by the usual itty-bitty single-serving packages of butter, jelly, and cream cheese.

We threw out the awful muffins and stored the rest to paw through between flights in the terminal. Our connection from Paris to Ljubljana isn’t for three hours.

Altogether, despite my whining, Air France service is competitive or even a little better than aboard Delta, American, United, etc. in Premium Economy. I’m happy. It’s a far cry from business class, though soooo much superior to Economy.

Air France Hop! AF1036 CDG/LJU (E190)

It was a long, long walk, plus a terminal connector train, from Paris CDG Airport Terminal 2E to the bus which goes to diminutive Terminal 2G for our flight to Ljubljana.

Before reaching the bus stop we encountered a TSA-type security screen that required us to put liquids and lotions in a separate plastic bag. We didn’t have to remove shoes, however. Very friendly and professional.

Also uncrowded on this Wednesday morning.

Then the immigration screen where our passports were stamped.

Finally a bus ride to Terminal 2G. A really long ride, too. Ruth and I got a landside tour of the other CDG terminals en route. When finally discharged at 2G, we were underwhelmed. It’s functional and clean, but modest and plain: a typical commuter flight operation.

We deplaned into Terminal 2E from the JFK flight at 940am (70 minutes behind schedule due to the previous evening’s JFK runway congestion) and reached 2G at 1051a.  We were both surprised that inter-terminal transit took 71 minutes. I was relieved we had a long connection.

Not many folks wearing masks on planes like us. Hard to pin down an accurate number, but less than 20%, I reckon. Young people especially eschew masks.

I was very pleased with the Air France Hop! Flight CDG to LJU: on time, no fuss but clean and efficient operation, and comfortable seats.  We reached Ljubljana Airport on time at 230p and had our Avis car by 300p. Ruth expertly navigated as I drove to Bled (Lake Bled) by 415p where we stay tonight and tomorrow night at the Penzion Mayer.

My first impression of Slovenia is of Tyrol. It looks so Bavarian and Austrian. And thus happily familiar (since lived in Munich 1975 through 1976).

Tomorrow we explore Lake Bled and its surroundings. Tonight we dine at a traditional Slovenian restaurant called Old Cellar.

It’s a great feeling to finally be here and to have been transported so efficiently and comfortably by Air France.  Bravo to the airline.  After a bad start from Raleigh, I am relaxed.

Getting to Paris, the hard way

Following are my real-time notes made last Tuesday, August 30, documenting the troubled saga of getting from Raleigh to my flight JFK to Paris:

About a half year back, my wife and I planned two weeks in Slovenia and Croatia leaving today and returning mid-September. With careful attention to detail, I researched and booked tickets through Delta from Raleigh to JFK, then using codeshare flights on Air France JFK to Paris and Air France subsidiary Hop! Air from Paris to Ljubljana (Slovenia).  Got a great fare in Premium Economy, too.

But yesterday when I checked us in, Delta’s website omitted my TSA Pre-check validation on the boarding passes. But included them just fine on my wife’s passes (we’re both longtimeTSA Global Entry-Pre members). That prompted me to spend a few minutes on the Delta Elite phone line with an agent to correct that. 

“A few minutes” eventually turned into four-plus hours lasting late into last night, which I documented in a blog post this morning while waiting to leave for the airport, which you can read here. 

Just as I completed that post, I got a text from Delta saying this:

“The 30 Aug Delta flight you’re tracking (DL4787) from Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina to Kennedy Intl, New York has, unfortunately, been canceled due to weather. Please visit delta.com/flight-status to request notifications for another flight.”

This led to a mad scramble with another Delta agent via phone for yet another hour to find a replacement flight to JFK. A great and generous friend rushed us to RDU just after 10am with me still on the phone all the way to the airport with Delta. 

I nervously paced up and down inside the RDU terminal negotiating with the Delta agent who offered several unattractive alternatives (like downgrades from Premium Economy) before finally rebooking us on an American Airlines flight at 1211p (rather than our original 235p Delta flight). I stood my ground and got a better deal after rejecting a lot of poor offers.  

“How much will that American flight cost me?” I asked suspiciously. 

“Not a penny,” she said, “because we at Delta canceled your flight.” 

Frankly, I was stunned. It’s been years since an airline offered to rebook me on another airline at no cost to me. That was standard practice many years ago, but not in several decades.

I took it, of course, and we hustled over to the American counter to get our boarding passes. American, unlike Delta, made sure I was authorized to use the TSA Pre line, and I even added our AAdvantage frequent flyer numbers to the record. As a Lifetime Gold (I am a million miler at American), that also got us primo seats in Main Cabin Extra right behind first class. 

We rushed through security and to the gate, only to find the flight was late by 45 minutes. No matter, we still arrived JFK about 200p, and our Air France flight doesn’t depart until 730p for Paris. 

We made it to Air France and are now inside security. Took 90 minutes from the time our flight landed at JFK Terminal 8 (American) to get to Terminal 1 (Air France) on the JFK Air Train, get our boarding passes, and endure the conga line at security. 

But, unlike Delta, Air France got TSA Pre✔️ correct on our boarding passes AND reinstated my precious seat assignments on the two-seat side of tonight‘s aircraft (an aisle and window). We are now recuperating from the stressful morning by enjoying the Priority Pass primeclass lounge near gate 8 with a G&T.

Despite the Delta snafus, I am joyful and relieved that we are actually traveling again after a very long period staying at home. Looks like we’re going to get there. Well, at least as far as Paris, anyway. 

More in the next post on Air France service in Premium Economy on their 730p departure and of Paris CDG Airport. 

By the way, that Delta BS about our original Raleigh to JFK flight having been canceled “due to weather” was just that: BS.  It’s been gorgeous here at JFK all day and still is. “Weather” is a weak lie for what was likely a crew shortage. Maybe I should tell Buttigieg so he can spank Delta.

The nightmare begins

August 30, 2022

Delta Airlines made my life miserable 24 hours before my flights to JFK, Paris, and Ljubljana (LJU, in Slovenia). I thought only United Airlines had perfected that agony

My wife and I were looking forward to our long-planned vacation to Slovenia and Croatia. Many months ago, I snagged a good Premium Economy fare RDU/LJU on Delta codeshare flights with Air France via CDG. The itinerary is three segments: RDU/JFK on Delta, then Air France JFK/CDG, and AF subsidiary Hop! CDG/LJU. 

All seemed well until I checked in yesterday for travel today.

Online check-in at delta.com went smoothly until I discovered several anomalies with the boarding passes.  The most glaring error was no “TSA PRE-check” on my boarding passes.  I’ve been a TSA Global Entry/PRE member since the programs began.  Boarding passes for my wife, also a longtime Global Entry/PRE member correctly showed “PRE”.  Less important, but just plain weird, was the presence of double identical boarding passes for the 2nd segment and triple identical boarding passes for the 3rd segment for both of us.

I checked and rechecked and rechecked again all my profile settings at delta.com.  My TSA Trusted Traveler number was intact and correct.  My full name was spelled correctly in the profile, on my passport, on my TSA Global Entry card, but missing the suffix “III” on my ticket.  The suffix from being named William Allen III has tripped up airlines more than once, so I thought I had found the problem.  TSA requires a perfect name match (including suffixes) on every part of a PNR (passenger name record).  So I called the Delta Elite line and was happily surprised to have just a five-minute wait.

Five minutes to talk to a live agent, but after 42 minutes, she was hopelessly confused and muttered that I’d have to take it up with airport agents before hanging up on me.  That was my first hour of wasted time and highly frustrating for me.  I was deeply anxious when she disconnected me.

I waited about thirty minutes until I had calmed down and tried again.  This time I got a Delta agent who really knew her stuff and wanted to help.  She dug into the history of my booking and discovered (after about 40 minutes) that a Delta agent who had long ago helped to set up this itinerary when the delta.com website had choked and refused to let me complete the ticketing process had inadvertently left off the suffix on my name.  When I asked why she had not simply used my full and correct name from my delta.com SkyMiles profile, she had no idea.  But the ticket, she assured me, would have to be reissued before spitting out new boarding passes properly showing “PRE” on them.

That call was escalated from her to a supervisor, and then to a special Delta agent skilled at reissuing tickets in Singapore (I asked).  Later in the call, which by then had been 90 minutes, he had to get his supervisor in Singapore involved, too, and it took the two of them to do the job. Turned out because my wife is on the same record locator that both her ticket and mine had to be reissued.  By then four Delta agents had been involved.

I pleaded with the Singapore-based agent and his supervisor to preserve our precious seat assignments in the Premium Economy cabin on the Air France flights.  He assured me they would do their best.  He repeated what I had already discerned:  Delta issued my ticket wrong to begin with, he said, and it doesn’t match my TSA Trusted Traveler number for PRE and Global Entry.  Just the same, he first “unchecked” us in and asked me to retry checking in.  I did.  Same results.  Three times I had to give him and previous agents my TSA Trusted Traveler number so they could verify it was correct. Ditto for assuring them that my name was spelled correctly everywhere in the online profiles except the lack of a suffix on the PNR itself.

I warned the agent that we wouldn’t go if we got downgraded due to him and his supervisor releasing seats on any of the six segments. This was already a nightmare. I was by then super unhappy and frustrated and beginning to wish that we weren’t going on the trip at all.

At 2 hours, 49 minutes the agent in Singapore and his supervisor had tried everything short of reissuance but still could not resolve why my Trusted Traveler number wasn’t working to show PRE on my boarding passes.  So they carefully reissued the tickets and managed to keep all our seat assignments—a miracle.

At 3+ hours I stopped counting how long I’d been on the phone.  The agent in Singapore assured me it would work now and asked me to refresh my delta.com screens and see if my boarding passes showed “PRE”; I did as he suggested, and the boarding passes were still missing the “PRE” designation.  

Both agent and supervisor in Singapore were stunned.  The names all matched after being reissued, but they were still unable to resolve the PRE conundrum.  My Trusted Traveler number has been in the Delta record for 8+ years without a problem, always working perfectly up to now. And yet…

So today I’m going to RDU tomorrow three hours prior to our flight to see if the agents there at the counter can fix it. I’m taking my Global Entry card from TSA to show them and TSA that even though it’s not printed on my boarding pass I’m nonetheless a member. 

If Delta can’t even get this right—something that has always worked fine for me up to now—and four expert agents and supervisors cannot figure out what their systems did to screw this up, I have to wonder what else is in store for us.  We haven’t even left home, and this flying experience is already looking grim.

And just this minute I got a text message saying that our first flight (RDU/JFK) has been cancelled. So the nightmare is far from over. I am on hold with Delta Elite right now.

Road trip wiles

August 25, 2022

A recent two-day, 1,059-mile road trip that inevitably included much Interstate highway driving was a misery of frustrating long delays in motionless traffic contrasted with frenzied racetracks verifying speed limits have become meaningless.  Navigating between the alternating stoppages and rocketing cars was stressful, yet eye-opening.

Somehow, I thought a road trip would be fun and relaxing.  Especially given that the airport chaos this year since Americans decided the Covid pandemic was over (it isn’t) has reached epic proportions.  While I don’t mind rolling the dice with air travel, I do admit that the current wretchedness of flying, coupled to my own bad airline experiences in the past twelve months, made road trips appear to be an appealing alternative.  So when my wife and I planned to take our daughter back to the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, we devised what we thought would be a serene overland excursion.

As far as possible, our route was mapped along minor roadways and highways, purposefully avoiding the maddening Interstates.  Apart from congestion, I don’t enjoy the sterility and sameness of expressways.  Designed to be commercial conduits with limited access, throughways necessarily keep travelers at a distance from the real world.  Due to time and sheer geography, though, Interstates are unavoidable.  Our path from Raleigh took us along Interstate highways 40, 85, 65, and 24 in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.

After tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands of miles driving on Interstates, I’m hardly naïve about busy limited-access highways. Nonetheless, plying those roads on this journey gave me insights into the new norm of post-pandemic American driving habits and conditions.  It wasn’t pretty.  For starters, I began to wonder: What speed limits? 

Okay, I admit that I routinely exceed speed restrictions on highways using my own formula for avoiding a citation.  Traffic congestion, road conditions, and weather permitting, I generally run about seven MPH over the limit.  If the posted speed is 55, I keep it on 62.  If 60, then about 67.  On 65 mph roads, I drive at 72 or 73.  When the signs say 70, I always keep it under 80 by a couple of MPH.  Risky, maybe, but usually those speeds don’t attract blue lights.  Up to 2022, hewing to my system has usually put me in the middle of the pack among Interstate motorists. I pass some vehicles; some pass me. 

But on our recent trip, I passed only a few RVs (the blasted things always dawdle along at a snail’s pace) and some tired-looking, overloaded eighteen-wheelers.  In fact, doing 78 in a 70 zone, cars and big trucks routinely passed me like I was standing still.  Some flashed by at speeds that had to be well above ninety.

I understand speed.  Way back in the 1970s I lived and worked in Germany (Munich was my home city), and I quickly learned on Autobahns to obey the ubiquitous road signs that read: “RECHTS FAHREN” (“Drive right”).  Getting into the left lane was strictly for the most powerful Mercedes and daring drivers.  Speeds of over 100 MPH were legal and commonplace.  Each adjacent lane was slower and slower, with pondering trucks and puttering automobiles never leaving the far right lane.

That was and is lawful, and every German knows the rules of the Autobahn.  That ain’t so in today’s America.  American drivers are ignoring the limits by a wide margin, and the custom of slower traffic staying in the right lane is ancient history.  Fast drivers take the path of least resistance in whatever lanes have openings.  I’m okay with that strategy.  However, it takes persistent care and concentration to make safe lane changes of my own in that environment.

Then there are the chronic Interstate slowdowns and stoppages.  Some are caused by crashes, while most are due to construction, with lanes suddenly closed off for miles, squeezing every vehicle into a narrower roadway.  Either way, the result is usually miles of exasperating backups.

I thought nothing could make me feel as powerless as being stranded on a plane sitting sometimes for hours in runway snarls waiting to take off.  Having no control—and often no knowledge—of what is causing such delays or when we will move again was agonizing.  Sitting on the ground at LaGuardia, as happened more often than not, I used to ponder the irony of being aboard an instrument of mobility capable of reaching the speed of sound sitting idle.  Many times runway delay times exceeded the one-hour flying time to Raleigh.

The same feeling of profound helplessness with no information comes over me sitting in a miles-long Interstate backup.  But I’ve devised a strategy for avoiding these menaces, too.  I always keep my navigation going on my phone even when I know the route.  As soon as any extended red (stopped traffic) shows up ahead, I take the exit before it begins.  Often it’s a challenge to find a route around the congestion points because my phone’s GPS doesn’t (yet) have an option for avoiding stopped traffic.  Using dead reckoning and the local area roads that show up on the GPS map, though, I can always find a way around. 

It’s a crapshoot whether my method is faster than any given stoppage, but for me, that isn’t critical.  I just need to keep moving.  I need to feel like I am in control of my driving rather than being at a dead stop and blind on the Interstate.  No matter how slow, I am able to keep moving.

Truth is, I like driving.  I’ve always enjoyed it.  So I’ll be taking more road trips, including one my wife and I have long dreamed of across the country to the West.  I’ll incorporate the revelations regarding the current state of Interstate highway driving into my future trip plans, especially paying close attention to possible detours around areas of chronic congestion, such as major interchanges and urban areas.  I hope GPS providers catch on to the need for alternate routes around congestion, too.

Uncertain Slovenia & Croatia trip planning

August 18, 2022

Six months ago, my wife and I began planning two weeks of travel exploring Slovenia and Croatia in September.  Booking air Raleigh to Ljubljana (Slovenia) was a little bumpy, but fairly easy, so I assumed scheduling trains, rental cars, and accommodation in that part of Europe would be a snap, like in France and Italy.  Well, it wasn’t that easy.

Surveying RDU/LJU flights was pretty straightforward, but at first, I couldn’t find even coach fares under about $2,000.  That seemed high to me.  Trolling various airline websites and third-party travel portals, I eventually stumbled on a Delta/Air France codeshare itinerary for $1609 round trip in Premium Economy.  Outbound, it was RDU to JFK, connecting to AF to Paris CDG, then Air France partner Hop! Air CDG to Ljubljana on a CRJ 900.  Returning was again on Hop! Air LJU/CDG before connecting to AF CDG to Boston, followed by a final leg on Delta BOS/RDU.  Times were reasonable in both directions.  I found that on a third-party site.

The same flights and fare were visible on Delta.com.  However, when I tried to book it, the site would repeatedly hang and not let me pay.  Only after phoning the elite line (which still involved a callback) was I successful in getting a knowledgeable Delta agent to complete the booking.  After unsuccessfully plumbing every other connecting option in her system for lower fares, she commented that I was lucky to have found such a bargain in Premium Economy.  Her reassurance salved the bruising to my wallet of shelling out $3200 for two tickets just to Europe.

Okay, I thought, flying into Ljubljana was a faster option than routing to Vienna and then taking a train—our alternative idea.  Now we needed a rental car at Ljubljana Airport for our first week, and I set about fishing for a good rate.  I had a hard time, though, finding even a small car for less than about $100 per day.  Luck again smiled on me one afternoon when a less rapacious $70/day rental suddenly presented at Avis.  Not cheap, but looking more and more like a bargain, I hit the “Book” button.  Having been an Avis Presidents Club member for decades, I signed in with my Wizard number and proceeded to hold the car. 

Then, like the Delta system, Avis.com wouldn’t let me complete the reservation.  Try as I might, I could not confirm my booking.  Squinting at the screen after the fifth or sixth failure, I noticed a small notice at the bottom of the screen saying there was a “problem” with my credit card.  I always use my American Express Platinum Card for car rentals because of the superior auto insurance protection Amex provides.  Closer scrutiny of the message revealed that this Avis location doesn’t accept Amex.

What?  I’ve rented from Avis all over the world, and even remote and backwoods locations in Belize, Botswana, and Bolivia have accepted the Amex card embedded in my Avis account.  Why not modern Slovenia?  Nonetheless, I wanted that rate, the cheapest I could find, so grit my teeth and added a Capital One Visa Card to hold the Avis car.

Meanwhile, my wife was busy booking hotels, Airbnbs, and authentic B&Bs in the various places we were visiting, such as Bled and Dubrovnik.  Some wanted payment soon or right away, and some were extra slow confirming.  Sure, we expected some idiosyncrasies, but the overall experience was lengthy, difficult, and inconsistent.  One hotel in Piran offered a prepaid parking permit, which we opted for, but never replied to several emails to confirm.  Similar uncertainties characterized attempted communications with other hostelries in both countries.  In those places, we are winging it and hoping that we actually have the reservations we asked to confirm.

Next was to book a flight from Dubrovnik to Zagreb.  That proved to be fairly easy via the Croatia Airlines website, though I thought the airline’s strict carry-on and checked bag rules were confusing.  I decided to resolve that conundrum by booking “Business Class” for a little more money: 1779 Kuna (about $239 for two seats).  Croatia Airlines biz class is typically European with seats configured 3-3 and the center seat left vacant in the first few rows.  To me, the biggest business class advantage is the checked bag and carry-on luggage allowances.

Various hardcopy travel guides and online booking sources pointed us to ferry services from Split to Dubrovnik, but every one of the recommendations we consulted was wrong.  I finally managed to buy ferry tickets for $40 each through Jadrolinija Lines.  The only downside is the arrival time in Dubrovnik after dark.

We needed several trains and were directed by a number of sources to the Austrian Railways site for booking (ÖBB) in Slovenia and Croatia.  To my consternation, neither ÖBB nor Rail Europe yielded anything.  Rail Europe returned “Sorry, no results found” to every inquiry. 

For a train from Zagreb to Split, I eventually located the HŽPP (Croatian Railways) site, which was better than any alternative I could find.  Once again, multiple rail travel guides for Croatia and Slovenia cited train times that proved incorrect.  HŽPP showed just one train in the available time period we needed, and I very carefully booked seats for it.  I was especially vigilant to use the European date format of day-month-year, too, and I double-checked it before committing to buying tickets in first class (just slightly roomier than coach).  Yet, somehow, the Croatian Railways site changed it to the next day and charged my card. 

Frustrated, I repeated the exercise, and this time noticed the same strange one-day change of dates, which I corrected the second time.  Unfortunately, only second class was available on the correct date, as first class was apparently sold out.  I took what I could get. 

A few days later I emailed HŽPP to ask for refunds on the erroneous travel day booking.  A reply came back promptly indicating my request had been forwarded to the “compenent Department” for processing.  To date, no word from “compenent Department” about getting our money back, nor have I seen a credit on my card.

We aren’t yet done, either.  Despite multiple stabs at discovering how to book a train from Ljubljana to Zagreb, I can’t figure it out.  Friends who have made the trip say plenty of seats are always available the day of travel at the central train station.  I hope so.  But, as the hackneyed saying goes, hope is not a strategy.

The same unknown train information holds true when returning days later near the end of our trip from Zagreb to Ljubljana just before we fly home.  Once again, folks who’ve done it assure us that open seats can be purchased at the Zagreb station on the day we need to travel.  Nonetheless, it is uncertain, and I’m uneasy.

Altogether, I found getting things organized for our upcoming trip to these two Euro countries exasperating.  I imagined trip details for Slovenia and Croatia would be simple to arrange.  After all, past arrangements for travel to and through more exotic locales such as Malaysia, Rarotonga, Peru, and Thailand weren’t hard.  This one, though, took a lot more work and concentration.  I’m looking forward to comparing the actual trip experience to parts of what used to be Yugoslavia to the struggles of this trip’s planning.

Pricey South Africa

August 8, 2022

Having flown once or twice annually to South Africa since 1991, I’ve never experienced such high airfares as now in premium economy and business, the so-called “premium” classes.  Whether in dollars or miles, it’s a costly trip these days.  If I wanted to go RDU/JNB this week in business class, round trip would be a whopping $14,709 on Delta or a mere $10,974 on United. Ouch!

Neither would I find an award travel bargain at 990,000 miles to fly in Delta One business class.

Heck, Air France is charging a million points from Paris to South Africa to sit up front, which may take the prize for most expensive award travel to date.  But I’ll stick to looking at fares and classes from my home airport here in Raleigh (RDU) since I don’t live in the City of Light.   

As a basis for comparison, here’s what I paid for recent roundtrips RDU/JNB (Johannesburg):

  • June 2019 – $2110 on Delta in premium economy (for travel Feb-Mar, 2020)
  • January 2021 – $3300 on United in business (for travel in Jul-Aug, 2021)
  • March 2021 – $3300 on United in business (for travel in Oct-Nov, 2021)
  • June 2021 – $3300 on United in business (for travel in Feb-Mar, 2022)
  • May 2022 – $1724 on United in premium economy (for travel in Feb-Mar, 2023)

I used Google Flights to look at economy (Y), premium economy (PE), and business (J) fares for mid-month, midweek travel for 14-day stays. 

I started with near-term dates in August, just a few days out, and then checked every three months (November 2022, February 2023, and May 2023). 

Only Delta and United fly nonstop from the USA to South Africa now that South African Airways is kaput.  SAA has become the Alitalia of the southern hemisphere, failing frequently and having to be bailed out. 

Both Delta and United now fly to both Johannesburg (JNB) and Cape Town (CPT), DL from Atlanta, and UA from Newark.  I checked fares to both JNB and to CPT.  However, Delta doesn’t start flights to Cape Town until December 17, so fares for the direct service in August and November are nonexistent.

I also checked a few fares for flights connecting through Europe.  Direct flights from EWR and ATL are 15-16 hours to both JNB and CPT—long hauls, but still preferable to 6-12 hour layovers in European gateways like London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Paris. That makes the total travel time much longer than using the nonstops.  I looked at AA/BA fares via LHR, AA/Qatar (QR) fares via Doha, and finally, Delta/Air France or Delta/KLM fares through CDG and AMS.

I did not attempt to shop for the cheapest (or most expensive) dates within a month.  Google Flights conveniently has a price matrix for entire months to allow that, but I wanted to use midmonth two-week periods, usually Monday or Tuesday outbound and Tuesday or Wednesday return, letting the fares fall where they may based on demand for those dates, not on low-fare shopping.

Here, then, are my matrices of airfares:

My principal takeaways are:

  • Except for near-term dates, economy fares are cheap and varied the least.
  • Cape Town economy fares on DL and UA are a little higher than to JNB.
  • Delta PE fares to both JNB and CPT are generally higher than UA.
  • Delta PE fares to JNB on some dates are not significantly higher than I paid in 2019.
  • United PE fares to JNB are generally higher than I paid back in May, though similar on some dates.
  • Delta business fares to both JNB and CPT are sky-high five-figure sums, whereas United’s business fares are half or less except for August (just a few days in the future). 
  • Many Delta premium fares were not returned, perhaps indicating sold-out cabins on the dates I checked.  Does this imply that the market favors Delta’s PE and J products, or something else? 
  • I don’t know.  I’ve flown both United’s and Delta’s current business class, and there was a difference in customer service in flight, not seat product.  But the difference isn’t worth paying double in my opinion.   
  • United fares were returned for nearly every date and class to both cities and were mostly far cheaper than Delta.  After three round trips to South Africa in the past 12 months in UA Polaris cabins, I just don’t see how Delta One cabins merit a 100% fare premium.

Next, I matched award mileage to dollar costs for both UA and DL using only the May 2023 dates for RDU/JNB: 

Damnably expensive in business class in either miles or dollars!  But if points are still worth 1.0 to 1.2 cents each, then award travel is pretty close in costs to real money.  

Which is no real comfort.  Because no matter how I price flying a premium cabin to South Africa, the cost is dear.  I’m glad to be locked in to fly next February and March for $1700 in premium economy.

Immobility isn’t me

July 26, 2022

Stasis is not my thing. I’ve never liked to remain in one place very long.  So this summer has been especially hard on me.  I’ve been stuck in Raleigh, on the ground, ever since returning from South Africa in March.  Almost six months!  My Lord!  I am antsy just thinking about that.

But travel by air, by rail, and by rubber tire became such a struggle this summer that I couldn’t justify the gain over pain.  Flying by itself saw too many people pushing against too few professionals to keep the planes in the air. 

Made worse by ballooning airfares and inflated pump prices, not to mention potential super-spreader Covid events at crowded airports, on board planes, and often at jam-packed destinations.  Sure, I’m vaxed and vaxed and boosted, but so what?  Suddenly becoming Covid positive from the stranger in seat 22E is a surefire way to kill the fun. 

Yesterday I got excited about driving 130 miles to Altavista, Virginia to meet two friends—ancient rail guys like me—for lunch.  Though I was on pre-Amtrak trains through the little burg a number of times in the 60s, it was always at night.  Until yesterday, I’d never seen the historically notable rail town where the Virginia Railway was born (now the Norfolk Southern) and where the famous Lane Chest Company thrived.  Instead of being tired from the drive there and back, upon arrival home last night I was thrilled to have learned about Altavista and to have poked around all over town.  I reflected on it until bedtime as I pored over maps.

No doubt that’s why I have lived the life I have, one of a vagabond of sorts, always on the move, always curious. Had it not been for my wonderful wife, I would have continued renting rather than buying a house.  Because buying, to me, symbolized being chained to one place.  Many folks like the anchor of “home” and equate that to their house, their town, their state, and their country.  Stability, inertia, call it what you will.  That was never me.  I embrace change and like moving on.  Home is wherever I am.

Travel and exploration of the world seem to have been hardwired in me from birth.  I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t keen on seeing what was around the next curve in the road or over the distant hill.  When I go to Montana, as I have most summers for twenty-odd years to visit my wife’s family cabin in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, I relish finding back roads from Billings that are new to me en route. 

I do the same when cruising slowly over dirt roads in the Kruger National Park in South Africa; when wandering secondary byways through the South Island of New Zealand; when rambling on foot through streets in Hong Kong’s New Territories; and when discovering local café gems among the non-touristy back alleys of Peru’s Cuzco.  The delight of a novel experience rewards my peripatetic nature.

Perhaps I have some Romany blood.  The Gypsy in me is always planning where to go next, never quite satisfied with where I am.  That said, I am always glad to have arrived and to have seen new places (however ordinary), experienced native cuisine (often out of the ordinary), and especially to have met local people.  Often the social interactions make the most lasting memories. 

I’ve been stuck in Raleigh (a great place, to be sure) for too long already.  I’m sure looking forward to eating and meeting my way across Slovenia and Croatia in September!

Lost horizons

July 20, 2022

Where to go in these troubled days of travel challenges?  Covid echoes, climate change, political upheaval and unrest, and economic troubles are shrinking my possibilities for travel.

Of course, some places are perennially on my don’t-go list.  Who wants to risk traveling to North Korea, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Iraq, Sudan, or Somalia?  Definitely those places seem like a one-way ride.

I guess now I can add Afghanistan to that list.  Too bad.  Seeing the awesome Hindu Kush range of the Himalayas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a childhood dream, ain’t happening.

Thank goodness I spent several weeks touring Venezuela in the early 90s with locals because I can’t see it now.  My experiences camping on the banks of the mighty Rio Orinoco were wondrous.  We caught piranha on tiny hooks using bread balls for bait and roasted the delicious fish over open fires.  I won’t miss the mosquito clouds at night, however.

Probably I won’t be returning any time soon to Myanmar (Burma), either, though I found the country and its people fascinating and friendly when I visited in 1994 or so.  Well, except for the world-famous Bagan, home to 3500 Buddhist pagodas.  One day of seeing temple after boring, dusty temple was more than enough for me, many of which looked like the one before.  I called it “pagoda hell” and left two days early to return to Yangon (Rangoon).

Thanks to China’s unrelenting repression of democratic independence, the Hong Kong I remember so fondly from the 1980s to my last trip in June of 2018 is gone. I documented these bittersweet memories:

In fact, all of China is now closed due to Covid and is suddenly a chilly place for an American, anyway.  We loved touring parts of China and were gradually returning to visit new provinces, savoring new foods and unique provincial dishes.  China, after all, spans five geographical time zones and borders fourteen countries, the second most of any country in the world after Russia, so it’s impossible to exhaust new areas to poke about in. 

Ukraine is definitely off the list.

I wouldn’t say I had a hankering to visit Ghana per se, but I am interested in West Africa.  Not so much with the Ebola-like Marburg Virus on the loose and with rampant crime and corruption.  West Africans don’t seem big on civil liberties, public health, and public safety.

Even friendly, delightful Canada isn’t much welcoming Americans these days, not that I blame them.  Finally, we can go back, however, with a little hassle.

Okay, Australia and New Zealand have reopened, but their governments’ hair-trigger Covid policies could trap me there should an outbreak occur. 

For decades I’ve revered and traveled back to the wondrous beauty of our United States western parks, yet record floods and fires have made trip planning there uncertain.  Who wants to suddenly be denied entry to Yellowstone or Yosemite?

Hawaii was a perennial favorite since I worked and lived there in 1981, but horrendous traffic congestion and recent giant waves breaking over oceanfront condos do not entice me back.

Ditto for the nearly year-round tropical storms and hurricanes of Florida and the Gulf Coast, not to mention outbreaks of brain-eating bacteria from a simple splash in the water and pythons large enough to swallow alligators in the Everglades.

Most of Mexico is out unless I want to be robbed and quite possibly murdered. For the record, I like living.

Similarly, Central American countries seem to vie for the top tropical isthmus spot in which to be massacred.  Uh, no, thanks!

Cheap camping safaris to the Botswana wilderness are but a remembrance.  I paid about $100 per day for nearly fifteen years for fabulous trips to some of Africa’s most glorious game parks like Chobe, Savuti, Moremi, and Okavango.  All clients had to do then was to put up and take down our own tents, pick up some deadwood every day for the nightly campfire, and try not to get eaten when we ventured out to the lavs at night (none of the campgrounds were fenced). Sadly, the tour operators wised up and realized that if they spiffed up the experience a little, they could charge a lot more.  Now a similar, somewhat more luxurious “camping” safaris cost about a grand a day per person.  For ten times what I paid, clients no longer suffer the hardships of tent work or fetching firewood.

The everlasting damp chill of midsummer England that I experienced nearly every day when I lived and worked there in the 70s and 80s is but a memory as new heat records are set daily.  London’s allure fades as the temperature rises to the century mark.  Buckingham Palace guards need to trade their bearskin hats and heavy woolen uniforms for Maui Jim shades, Te Mana Tahitian shirts, and tropical khaki shorts.

Neither does the Eiffel Tower beckon when it’s 104 degrees, not even sipping coffee at a traditional street cafe if I have to park myself in stifling heat.  Who wants Marrakesh weather in Paris?

Seems like many places across Europe are burning, with new reports every day.  Hmm, no more jaunts to Spain or Provence for a while.

And it isn’t even August yet when most Europeans go on a month-long holiday.

A leisurely tour of Sri Lanka is now inadvisable.  Thank goodness we saw the island nation several years ago in better times.  I feel terrible for their food and energy calamities.

I always yearned to see St. Petersburg and Moscow, but now must hope that Putin’s successor views Americans in a better light before I plan to travel to Russia.

I tell myself that it all doesn’t matter since airfares are sky-high and airline service miserable.  So flying is a crapshoot.  But I still long to go.

Ditto for trains.  Not even Amtrak can get staff or parts to keep its aging fleet of locomotives and rolling stock moving, resulting in cancellations and many hours of delay, not to mention minimalist or nonexistent onboard service.  The pathetic tray meals currently served on the New York to Miami train “Silver Star” are nicknamed “Star-vation.”

That leaves driving.  Oh yeah, gas prices.  A glimmer of hope there, however.  Yesterday I saw $3.99 per gallon here in Raleigh—wow!  Maybe a road trip is in the cards after all.  Starting with a short hop of two to three hours to the North Carolina coast for a cooling dip in the surf.  I just hope I don’t become another summer of 2022 shark attack victim.

Old dog, new tricks

July 6, 2022

Despite being a stubborn creature of habit, I learn and adapt to new realities.  Flying these days means accepting that airlines now exist for investors, not for me. And that I am never going to be flying enough again to reach top-tier elite levels.  In recognition of the changes, I am slowly releasing my grip on forty-plus years of travel routines in favor of an eclectic array of disparate opportunities.

For starters, I’ve been educating myself on modified airline practices afoot or already in place.  I pay close attention to my friend and mentor, Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the Joesentme business newsletter and The Brancatelli File.  Joe has been beating the drum for several years for us to awaken to the harsh new world of airline indifference. 

In column after column, Joe has cataloged the manifold failures of commercial aviation to treat customers with dignity and respect.  Airlines have consistently trivialized the customer experience despite having been bailed out time and again since 9/11, the latest giveaway being $54 billion in Covid relief meant to preserve airline employee jobs.  This summer’s ongoing air service fiascos exploded that fantasy. 

Yet the carriers are never held to account because there were no strings attached.  Taxpayers poured those billions straight into Wall Street investors’ pockets.  Airlines have long since morphed from customer-focused to investor-focused.  They don’t care about us because they don’t have to.

Here’s a YouTube 2021 treatise I thought worthwhile called “How Airlines Quietly Became Banks.” 

And here is an illuminating comment made to last week’s post on my quest to find airport lounges, with thanks to Deresky Martin:

“Like many of us living our lives in the reflection of our historical allegiances and contributions, you too have missed the message that our pension funds, IRA managers, Investment Advisors, and such have been delivering to all companies: It matters not what you did in the past; but only what you are going to do in the future. Your millions of miles mean nothing to Delta or to its shareholders.

“In fact, it’s a liability for them that they would like to sell if they could find someone to pay them something, anything to remove that implied obligation. It only matters as to whether you are spending large amounts of money with them AND are likely to continue to do so. My guess is that your travel expenditure is less that $100K p.a., and, as such, you do not rank with the community that is going to make a material difference to their bottom line.

“Thus, the obligation of indefinite stay Lounges and their perquisites is another way that airlines can make cuts that are going to improve their bottom lines. Having paid for, used, and lost my Concierge Status at American over the last 5 years, I too feel the loss, but my connections with Wall St make their policies in this regard both logical and sensible. I do not like it any more than you, but the world has changed, and, in many ways, we asked for this.”

I believe Mr. Martin states the truth.

So here are some of my new simplified travel rules:

Credit Cards

I played the frequent flyer bonus game for decades, accepting one bank, airline, or Amex offer after another and always hitting the jackpot on miles or points.  In the background, however, the carriers and card issuers were playing a vicious multi-variant depreciation game with the ever-diminishing value of points for award tickets.  Just like Las Vegas, the player always loses. 

These days I carry the Amex Platinum Card and a Capital One Venture Visa.  Though the American Express Platinum has become annoyingly expensive, it still packs in a lot of travel value that I use, including club access.  See my post last week, for example.  Amex also reimburses me for the cost of keeping up my TSA Pre and Global Entry memberships.

The Capital One Venture Visa gives me many ways to use my points and is comparatively generous in point accumulation.  I used the card recently to pay $1400 in accommodation fees to South Africa National Parks, which prompted Capital One to offer to use points to pay my bill when it came.  It was super-easy.  I am also impressed with their travel booking site—also easy and clear.

Those two cards are all I need for travel, though I do keep a MasterCard, a Discover, and an extra Visa account active just in case.  All are no fee.

Club Access

Again, I cite my post last week for examples.  I no longer pay for any airline lounge because it’s no longer worth it.

Loyalty & Elite Programs

As Mr. Martin so rightly pointed out above, “lifetime” this or that, multi-million miler status, and so on is mostly vaporware in today’s flying world.  Loyalty to any airline is now one-way, benefiting the carrier, not me.  I certainly no longer try to attain the levels now required for airline elite status, which are mainly based on spending. 

Really, it’s only the very top elite level that’s worth anything—and sometimes not worth much.  For several years before AA added new super tiers, I was an American Airlines Executive Platinum, and yet I could never count on domestic first-class upgrades more than half the time.  Platinum and Gold never got upgraded.  Once in Charlotte, an AA agent told me that he had nearly twenty Executive Platinums awaiting upgrades ahead of me for one empty first-class seat CLT/RDU.

However, there are a few benefits that make even Silver or Gold elite level worth hanging onto.  I’m talking about free seat selection, access to better seats, free bag check, and “early” boarding. 

I put “early” in quotes because even a Platinum, depending upon the airline, is now number five or six in the boarding queue.  So “early” really means “before the hordes who paid only for basic economy.”  And that’s still good because I need to get on board and find a place for my carry-on while overhead space is still available.

In summary, I parse and exploit the lifetime elite benefits that work, such as the ones I mentioned: priority boarding, free checked luggage, free seat selection, sometimes matching benefits for accompanying travelers on the same record, and the general goodwill that now and then comes from being recognized as, say, a five million miler on Delta.  That doesn’t get me a free drink, though.

Upgrades

I’ve learned to forget about upgrades because I never get one anymore.  I am no longer the tippy-top tier elite of any airline.  Instead, if I want to sit up front, I just buy a first or business-class seat.

I started employing that strategy years ago with Qatar, Emirates, and others not affiliated with one of the big three frequent flyer schemes.  On Southwest, I pay extra to board as early as I can to get a seat I like.  On JetBlue, I don’t mind paying extra for better seats, too.

Shopping for the least expensive premium seats in a market (first when flying domestic, business when flying overseas) makes me immune to loyalty.  Last year and early in 2022, for example, I bought three round trips in business class on United to South Africa that were less expensive than Delta’s Premium Economy in the same market.  United provided despicable service on all three itineraries, but I did ride in Polaris Class and saved many thousands of dollars.

Rental Cars

Before Covid, the rental car companies were poorly managed.  Since Covid, I can’t find a car domestically for under $100/day, plus, plus.  I often look for discounts through the Costco travel site, which can yield surprising savings.  Sometimes, I use Uber, or I try local rental car companies that will come pick me up at the airport and drop me off when I leave.  

But these days cars are outrageously expensive, and I have no strategy that routinely works. Rental cars are a black hole until automobile shortages abate.

Hotels

The accommodation industry is also focused on investors with no care for guests.  I shop for the cheapest place that looks clean and safe on third-party booking sites, then compare the prices on the hotel chain’s proprietary site.  I go with whichever is the least expensive.  Like airlines, gone are the days when I was loyal to Hyatt, Hilton, or Marriott.

I don’t miss the old competitive days of frenetic frequent flyer “mileage runs” at the end of each year to guarantee a better elite level for the coming one.  Travel planning has always been complex and full of uncertainties.  For me, the best new strategy is the peace of mind of buying a better seat instead of fretting about possible upgrades.  The new ways are simpler, and my stress levels are far lower.