Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Laird's Crazy, Mixed-up Travel Day

It all started innocently enough at 3:30 am, when Susan and I emerged from my warm bed so that she could give me a ride to the Holiday gas station on 27th St in west Duluth, where I rendezvoused with the 4:15 am Skyline Shuttle, headed for The Twin Cities. Although the wind was howling and the temperature had dropped into the teens (it's December after all), the shuttle arrived smack on time.

However, Mark (the regular driver on the 4:15 am run south) warned me right away that the van would be full because they'd closed down the Duluth airport the day before and there was a passel of would-be flyers that were scrambling to catch connecting flights in Minneapolis (one was headed for Cancun, of all places, and it was iffy if the shuttle would arrive at MSP in time for her to enjoy margaritas on the beach tonight). 

In any event we headed down I-35 and the road wasn't too bad. The rain of Monday had shifted to sheet and then snow in the night, but traffic kept the interstate fairly clear and we made good time to Hinckley, which is the halfway point. Unfortunately, by the time we hit the northern suburbs, traffic slowed to a crawl (think hippos on ice skates). While it's typically a lock to reach downtown St Paul by 7:00 am on that run (plenty of time to catch the eastbound Empire Builder, scheduled for an 8:00 am departure from Union Depot), today we limped in at 7:56 and I was cooked. 

By a perverse twist of fate the train (which originated in Seattle Sunday afternoon, and has an on-time performance record of only 59 percent) was running on time—even though vehicular traffic in and around The Cities was running like molasses. So by the time I'd ridden the Green Line light rail from the drop-off spot to Union Depot, it was 8:06 and the choo choo was vámanos. Now what?

I had tight train connections in both Chicago and Washington DC, and needed to be in Durham NC no later than dinner time Thursday, for the start of a facilitation training.

I first checked intercity bus options. I knew they could make the run in a bit less time than the train, so I scrambled to find something via Megabus or Greyhound. I preferred Megabus because it departs from Union Depot and I knew that the Chicago drop-off point was only two blocks from Union Station. At first I thought I'd struck gold because there was a departure for Chicago at 9:40 am. But when I looked more closely, the arrival was listed as 6:50 pm—10 minutes after my next train left. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

What about a flight? Cringing at what I might have to pay for a last-minute flight, I went to Expedia and held my breath. Amazingly, there was a United offering for $40, scheduled to arrive at O'Hare at 4:50 pm. Would that work? I knew there was a CTA line connecting O'Hare with downtown Chicago (the Blue Line), so I Googled how long that would take. The answer was 46 minutes, depositing me two blocks from Union Station. Allowing for time navigating the airport (O'Hare is huge), I figured that could just work so I bought the ticket (one of only four left).

Next I went to the Amtrak service window to see what I could salvage from the ticket I held for the train I had missed. While Amtrak's policy is that you can get a full refund (or travel voucher) for all tickets canceled before the train departs, if you don't ask for the refund until after the train leaves you're unprotected. Worse yet, they might cancel your entire itinerary if you miss the originating train.

Hat in hand, I approached the ticket window as a weary supplicant and the two guys running the place were bricks. They told me not to worry. It was Amtrak policy to honor refund requests when the problem was a weather delay, outside the control of the passenger. Just like that, they refunded the entire ticket price to my credit card, and reestablished the remaining two legs of of my trip (Chicago-DC and DC-Raleigh). Whew. Maybe an airline would do the same, but with experiences like that you can appreciate why I'm a confirmed train traveler.

What's more, the Amtrak agent told me that Southwest was offering seats on their 12:30 pm nonstop to Chicago Midway for $40, which was more convenient than the United flight I had already booked! Things were looking up.

Returning to the waiting room (where there was wifi access) I looked up the Southwest flights (they don't participate in Expedia) and confirmed the availability of a seat on the 12:30 pm flight. After buying one, I promptly canceled the ticket I had on the United flight (Expedia allows you to cancel for a full refund if you do it within 24 hours and I only held the ticket for about 20 minutes), and then queued up for a city bus from Union Station to Terminal 1 at MSP. Arriving there circa 9:45 am, I had to ride escalators down two flights, take a tram, and then two more escalators down to the light rail stop in the bowels of the terminal. From there I rode the Blue Line one stop to Terminal 2. After another series of escalators and moving walkways I arrived at the Southwest ticketing kiosk and checked my bag (another advantage of Southwest over United is that bags fly free, which meant the pocketknife I travel with wasn't confiscated).

After navigating the TSA security checkpoint I was in! I had 90 minutes until boarding, during which I enjoyed a revivifying latte and breakfast sandwich. The Southwest flight to Chicago turned out to be the start of a milk run, with stops slated for Chicago, St Louis, and Las Vegas before finally nestling for the night in Orange County, California. In any event the plane was only about two-thirds full for the first leg and the flight was short, though bumpy, with surface winds gusting to 40 mph. The approach was a bit of rodeo work, but we landed safely.

After collecting my bag I headed for the CTA stop (the Orange Line connects Midway with the Loop). About an hour after landing in Chicago I was walking into Union Station—15 minutes ahead of the arrival of the Empire Builder, the train I'd missed at 8:00 am.

All of a sudden I was back on schedule.

I'm typing this chronicle aboard the eastbound Capitol Limited, which left Chicago on time with me aboard. I've been traveling now for 16 hours, during which I've been in a car, a van, both light rail lines in The Twin Cities, a bus, a plane, the Chicago elevated, Amtrak, plus numerous escalators, elevators, and moving walkways. Sometimes I just plain walked. Just about everything excepting a Lyft ride, a pedicab, or a balsa raft. Of course, the night is still young.

See how much fun you can have when you go by train?

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