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Monday, June 24, 2013

Italy 2014 trip coming into being

Thanks mainly to the bonus I got for getting the Explorer credit card last summer, I've had the United miles to book one of us to Italy, keeping to the biennial plan and going in 2014. Looking for a time that works and is before prime season, I was looking at a trip in May, being in Venice for our first anniversary. Although I think the thought is exaggerated that people should book awards as soon as the schedule opens around 330 days in advance, I felt ready to look and potentially book a trip when dates including prospective return dates were open for United awards.

The plan was for an open-jaw trip, into Venice and out of Rome. Although I was trying to avoid doing it too often, I did sometimes search award availability for the dates available before my dates came up, and found sometimes there was availability on the US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Venice; anything else to Venice on a United award would require a connection, usually in Germany. But a return from Rome generally did not show a US flight. Since I was going to need to pay for my own flight, it looked like a paid trip US one way, United/Lufthansa the other, was going to be priced like two one-ways and prohibitively expensive.

But then when I looked at return dates that had just opened up, they sometimes showed only the US flights: they were loaded with award seats before the UA flights were. Plus, I found a list of when different airlines load their schedules: UA loads them 337 days in advance, US 330 days. On the night when I was ready to search with the possibility of completing a booking, after midnight Eastern time, I did a search for my dates of choice. The ideal return date wasn't showing, but with a return a day earlier there was US availability in both directions. I made the decision that this was good enough. And then, when I got up the next morning, there was availability on US flights on the ideal return date. Since it was within 24 hours of the original booking, I could make the change at no charge, even a few days after United changed the rules to have a $75 change fee when changing dates on an award trip on the same route. I'm not expecting very good service from US compared to Lufthansa, but we have the convenience of a transatlantic flight to Venice, with one long layover in the U.S. In the long layover in Philadelphia on the outbound, we can hope to see friends.

To sum up, it was to our advantage for me to book right at schedule opening. There was the advantage of getting the US flight to Venice, the US return flight was showing as a UA award before it showed on the US site, and I suspect it would stop showing as an award once UA awards were showing for that date.

In the shadow of this is the plan for US to leave the Star Alliance and merge into American Airlines. When I book myself on these flights, I don't know if I'll be able to earn UA miles on it, although I think US will still be operating under its own name. There's much to see about whether the flights will still operate under the schedules that are showing now.

So I've gotten plans started with this flight booking, and we'll see in general what will happen during this trip. This will probably be just less than a week in Venice, and two weeks in Umbertide. I'll be looking into Venice lodging shortly, and other details can be thought out closer to the time.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The wedding and beyond

I've been waiting to see if Zaka, the designated photographer, would make pictures and video available; in the meantime I'm showing this phone picture and saying what I remember about things around my wedding with Margaret. (And I'd like to get this done before there's news to post about next year's trip to Italy, which should be soon.) The wedding events themselves are in a haze for me. We had a nice little ceremony in my parents' living room in Vermont, performed by the Justice of the Peace, with poems recited by my mother and my cousin Mike.

Margaret and I checked into the guest suite of the Full Circle Studio, a nice spot for ourselves up the road from my parents'. The next day my parents hosted a reception at their house. In this midweek wedding that we fit into the trip based on the flights we booked without planning it as a wedding trip, it's amazing what people made the trip for us. Mike came from Taiwan, making his annual U.S. trip earlier than usual; his brother with lady friend came from Indianapolis. Other cousins came from California (as did Margaret's son), as did others from Maine. There were other longtime friends from Connecticut.

As I said, the events become a haze, and Margaret wasn't feeling well the next day. Even if I tried to think of it as a low-key wedding, it was a great occasion, including the intrigue of interesting connections made among some of the guests.

So then I'll get into some of the travel aspects. The arrival worked pretty well, once Margaret dealt with the reality of spraining her ankle a few days before. In this flight connection that I booked for her, with time on the ground in all four time zones of the continental United States, under Southwest's system we were counting on her being able to save a seat for me as she continued on the flight that stopped in Kansas City. With crutches next to her in row 1, she succeeded. For me it was easy enough, taking advantage of the new non-stop service to Boston.

While Haydee was booked to arrive 30 minutes earlier, her flight had a delay, and both flights were unloading at the same time, but she was out first. We had our meeting at baggage claim, and I took the bus to get a rental car, selecting a Chrysler 200 from the lot. I managed to get it to the crowded terminal curb, pick them up, and be on the road; we made it fine to my parents' Vermont home.

Then the return had complications making for better stories. Haydee changed her return flight and went to Maine with cousin Veronica, then planning to spend more time at my parents'. Margaret and I took off for our final night in Boston at a time that I thought was early for beating rush hour. I stopped at the place that I'd scouted as the place to gas up the car in the suburbs and, feeling good for my foresight, called the hotel and said my wife would be checking in while I returned the car; it was new to be using that term.

Then, as we proceeded towards Boston, the traffic came to a standstill. It crept along, I think two hours to go the last 10 miles, where we eventually crossed the bridge and entered the Big Dig tunnel. Here is the map of the end of our route to the Intercontinental Hotel: I had the words of the directions on my iPad for Margaret to read:

It had been a while since I had looked at the map or directions, and I was so frustrated by how delayed we were, when we exited, I didn't pay attention to how long we were to stay on Purchase St., I turned too soon, saw that we crossed Atlantic Ave., and figured I needed to turn around. I made a U-turn on Seaport Blvd. where there was a break in the median although it wasn't advisable. I was thinking then turn right (go north) and watch for the hotel. Did I miss it without many markings? I recognized the garage where the rental return was, convinced that I'd driven past the hotel. I returned the car to the lot on level 7; this was all while Margaret had felt an urgent bathroom need for some time. We went down the elevator to ground level so she could deal with that in the rental office; we barely made the 6 p.m. closing time, when I was thinking we'd be there over two hours before that.

I took the bags for both of us to walk the few blocks to the hotel while she felt the effects of her sprained ankle. I figured out where the hotel was and what my driving mistake had been, hoping the marriage would survive this. We checked in for the annual free night I get from my credit card at the Intercontinental, getting a nice harbor view room. We kept with the plan I had anyway not to have Margaret need to walk any distance: we took a taxi to the North End and the restaurant Bacco, on the Rewards Network miles-earning list. Remembering that Boston had been shut down for a manhunt just three weeks earlier, it was impressive to see the crowds in the narrow streets, and we had a nice meal although it meant climbing stairs. Then we took a taxi back for a nice night at the hotel.

In the morning, we agreed to have room service breakfast, and take it easy before taking off for the airport in the late morning. We had our separate return flights booked as planned before we knew this would be a wedding trip. I was booked to connect through St. Louis. Before we left the hotel, so about eight hours before the connection, I got a text of a big delay on the connecting flight. A little later, I got an alert of a delay on my flight out of Boston. From the times they'd given, I saw that I would still make the connection; in fact an initially tight connecting time would be extended. Because of the first flight's delay, the skycap sent me to the ticket counter, where the agent confirmed what I'd determined about making the connection.

We got to the gate area and ate at the Vineyard Grill, with a friendly waitress. It was time for Margaret to take off on her involved itinerary, so I saw her off, as she gets ready to move out of her Sacramento area home to move in with me a couple of months later.

There were announcements made about my delayed flight to St. Louis, and they asked people booked to Kansas City to go to the counter to get new boarding passes to connect through Chicago instead. I kept track of the projected status of the flights, and it looked like the second flight was still more delayed. It could be that they were going by the rule that delays can be reduced or eliminated, but then why didn't they say that at the ticket counter? Also, I'd made an effort to get a good boarding number, stopping at a rest area 24 hours before departure to check in, which delayed our arrival in Boston a little (but I don't think we'd have beaten the traffic tie-up), and now I got boarding number C18. Even with that, I got an aisle seat to Chicago, so some displeasure was reduced. I had a long layover there, with more food choices. Perhaps Southwest should be praised for being proactive, but I still would have made the connection in St. Louis with plenty of time, arriving 1.5 hours late, while this Chicago connection made me arrive three hours late.

So there's quite a reflection to make on what has become of me since I started this blog. I started as a guy wanting to post on the practicalities of travel and my experiences with them, which is still a big part of my interests, but I've also had the terrible time of losing Flo, writing on that, and getting people's great responses to that. And then something I couldn't have expected, of the connection with Margaret and it leading to marriage, a great turn in my life, as I look forward with wonderment to seeing what it all means.