Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Further Stories of Chris's Adventures in Transit

Have you ever had the experience of making a decision that you initially thought was smart, but turned out to actually be bad? Yeah? Me, too. The most recent example I can think of was planning my trip home over the Christmas holiday.

I had been hounding our HR person since August to find out what days we would have off. I fly Southwest and have accumulated some Rapid Rewards, and wanted to be able to use them for the flight before the rewards seats were all taken. Despite my repeated badgering, I didn't find out the time until October. By then I couldn't use my free flight, but I went ahead and booked immediately, because tickets only become more expensive with time.

Because of an upcoming vacation I wouldn't be able to take off any additional days, but I wanted to maximize my time home. Flying east is always a pain, due to the time zone changes, so travel generally eats up an entire day. I know from prior experience, though, that the day before Christmas vacation is generally slow, so I arranged to fly out that afternoon. On the return, I wanted to squeeze in one more family meal before coming back, so I picked an 9PM flight that would get me back to Oakland around 11:45.

I should briefly discuss the airport as well. I prefer flying out of San Jose because it's closer, smaller, and best of all I can take public transit there and back. However, the last few times I've flown to Chicago I have travelled out of Oakland. Southwest offers several nonstop Oakland-Chicago flights as opposed to just one from San Jose, plus it is generally cheaper. Oakland is close enough to be a feasible airport for me, as is San Francisco. The system I have developed is to drive up to Fremont, park in the BART lot for a dirt-cheap $5 a day, then take transit in to the airport. All considered, this is a very inexpensive way to fly, but one that requires a fair amount of time.

I ended up having disappointments on both ends of the trip. On the way out, we were notified in late November that that Friday night would be the company's holiday party. I was pretty bummed by that... I'd had a wonderful time at the previous holiday party and had been looking forward to it. However, I wasn't looking forward to it enough to pay $600 to move my flight back to Saturday, so I reluctantly decided to keep my existing itinerary. Then we found out a few weeks ago that on Friday afternoon we would be having the white elephant gift exchange. Once again, that was something I'd enjoyed doing last year, and in retrospect I probably could have attended and still caught my flight, but with holiday traffic on 880 I was concerned enough that I skipped out early.

The actual vacation home was wonderful. This is a post about bad things, not good things.

Oh, another complaint: in both directions of my trip, I checked in for my flight about 22 hours before it took off, and in both cases I got a "B" boarding pass. I really miss the good old days of Southwest where this was a secret that not everyone knew about.

Now for the big one: right before leaving Chicago, I started to worry about my schedule for getting back home. When I'd originally booked, my thoughts had been along the lines of "Well, 11:45 is pretty late, but for one night I'll be good to drive it." I'd completely neglected to take into account the fact that I was relying on other transit to get back to my car, and a quick check online showed that the BART shuttle only ran until midnight. Suddenly things looked very grim. Even if I arrived on time I'd need to dash to make it outside before midnight, and the odds of the last flight on the day after Christmas arriving on time felt very slim.

Getting to the airport was a breeze. I started to worry when the flight before us was late leaving the gate, putting us behind schedule even before we were done boarding the plane. I needn't have worried, though, because even if we'd boarded on time we would still have been late. I love Southwest, but I have come to discover that they adhere to an iron rule of travel: "Never delay one flight when you can delay two flights." A connecting flight into Chicago was running late, and in order to help those travellers catch this flight, they held the whole thing until it arrived.

All that considered, I wasn't surprised at all that I was late arriving in Oakland. (The trip itself was fun - I created a few islands in Me & My Katamari and read an entire Terry Pratchett novel.) The pilot teased me by saying that we would only be arriving about 5 minutes behind schedule, but I eventually realized that he was talking about our scheduled flight duration, not the scheduled arrival time.

It was after midnight when we touched down, but I headed out anyways. I had an irrational (and doomed) hope that, what with It Being Christmas Time, BART would be running an unscheduled extended shuttle service. No such luck. I next thought of grabbing a taxi - it would be more expensive than my parking, but if I got to the station soon enough I could still catch the last train. However, there were about fifty people in front of me in line, and it was moving slowly enough that I could tell I wouldn't be able to make it in time. So, with heavy heart, I went back into the airport.

I actually had heard a story on NPR just the week before about an airport in England which is used by Ryan Air and has become an unofficial hostel. People arrive the night before so they can take the super-early, super-cheap flights. Like the reporter in that story, I needed to contend with the janitorial staff dragging belt sanders across the floor, tiny cushioned chairs, and other minor indignities. Obviously, I couldn't go through security again, so I spent the night in the area by the baggage claim. (And I was not alone - other flights, surely delayed, were still arriving as late as 3:30.) I can't sleep sitting up, so most of the time I read "Zodiac", but it got to the point where I was doing the little blackout-and-tip-forward-then-wake-up thing.

All in all, it was a pain, but not the worst night I've had.

The shuttle starts up again at 5AM, although it only runs every 20 minutes until 6AM. I headed out there early, because (1) hope springs eternal, and (2) I am a fool. I figured that maybe they started the shuttle early at the airport so it could get to the station by 5AM, and I was in a hurry to get home, and I didn't want to wait 20 minutes if I missed the first pass.

So, I ended up waiting 30 minutes - as I should have anticipated, the shuttle starts at BART (there are more people flying out at that unpleasant hour than arriving), and doesn't arrive at the airport for a while. Which wouldn't have been bad, but Wednesday was an unusually cold, blustery day. I started off in just my jacket, but by the time the bus arrived I was decked out in full Chicago regalia, including scarf, gloves, and hat, physically shivering in the cold (though I guess my lack of sleep may have just been giving me shaky legs).

I boarded and went back to the station, and felt grateful that I had spent the night in the airport instead of this open brick sculpture. I went to the platform and discovered - surprise! - that there had been an accident and my train to Fremont was delayed. I sat down on the cold bench and briefly lost consciousness a few more times.

In the end, the train did come, and I had enough time to go home and shower before driving in to work. I usually don't drink coffee, and an advantage of that is days like Wednesday. Two cups kept me going throughout the entire day until I went home, went to bed, and slept the sleep of the dead.

I want to end with that note, but I won't. Closing thoughts:
First off, I'm still astounded that, with the general high quality of public transit in the Bay Area, only one of the three airports is directly on a rail system. The other two are so close to a station that I can only shake my head in wonder and frustration at why they were passed over. I think this is one of those classic things where even if it only saved a few minutes off a trip, the psychological impact is so great that far more people would take advantage of transit to the airport.

Second, I really want to see BART come to San Jose. After a night like that, I'd like to just ride all the way home instead of squeezing behind a wheel for part of the time.

Third, I need to be a better planner. I'm generally good, but I just dropped the ball on this one. (On the bright side, I know I won't be making this particular mistake again.)

Fourth, I'm kind of impressed at what a huge cheapskate I am. At no point during the night did it even occur to me to take a taxi back to San Jose. (I'm also incredibly shy. It didn't occur to me to give anyone a call at 3 in the morning to see if they would give me a ride.)

I guess that's it for now.

1 comment:

  1. A story designed to break a mother's heart. Do you want to tell her this on the phone, or have her read it first :~)