I started off the week by flying 436 miles from Toronto (YYZ) to Chicago on United. I took the 9:41 a.m. flight out, and the pre-clearance U.S. immigration line at YYZ was insanely long. The wait was about an hour and it provoked me to finally apply for a NEXUS pass. It took less than a minute for those with NEXUS, so it will be the best $50 you ever spend if you go to Canada frequently–or even infrequently since it’s valid for five years.
Here are some of my observations about the trip.
-Terminal 1 at YYZ is beautiful.
-YYZ offers free Wi-Fi to passengers but I used my Boingo account, which I felt was safer.
-We boarded at 9:12 a.m. and pushed back at 9:42; flight time was just 1:14.
O’Hare to Chicago
When I landed at O’Hare I just followed the signs to Trains and then bought a ticket from one of the CTA machines so I could take the L train into the city. Most machines take just cash; they had one or two that accepted credit cards but they operated differently than the others. Actually, I found them to be much more user friendly, maybe because they were exactly like New York City’s MetroCard machines. The Blue Line, as it’s officially called, operates every 10 minutes or so between the airport and downtown. The trip costs just $2.25, which is a bargain: a taxi cost approximately $40, and a shared-ride van is $28 per person. The ride took 45 minutes to get to Clarke and Lake, which is the heart of Chicago, and from there I took a $5 taxi (including tip) to the Conrad Chicago Hotel on N. Rush Street and Grand Avenue.
Conrad hotels are Hilton’s upscale brand, just like JW is for Marriott. Both are named after the fathers of the famous hoteliers. I was impressed that by the time I got out of the taxi a bellman had grabbed my bags from the trunk and asked if I needed help to the lobby located on the fifth floor. I declined and took the elevator up. Note: To access the guest rooms you need to change elevators on the fifth floor.
Conrad Chicago Check-In
There was no wait at the front desk and a nice Greek guy checked me in. I used my Hilton AMEX so I would get triple points and my rate was $255 (with tax it came to $290). It was 11:30 a.m. and I was relieved my room was ready (they don’t guarantee them until 3 p.m.). I asked how much Internet was, and he said it was free for everyone. That’s music to my ears. I then asked where I could get bottled water for cheap, and he said that was free too and in the room. I said, Are you serious? He smiled and then asked if I wanted some more. I said yeah and he brought me two cold bottles. I then asked if this was because I’m a silver member of Hilton Honors, and he said no, so you gotta love that! BTW: Gold Hilton Honors members get free breakfast.
Conrad Chicago Room
The standard room was a good size and had a comfortable bed that had its 5 pillows set up in a funky but cool way. The Internet was really fast and the work desk had a top-notch leather swivel chair. There was also a gigantic flat-screen TV connected to a Bose sound system. Like an idiot, I called down to the front desk because the TV volume wouldn’t go on even when I tried to do it from the set. The operator asked if I’d used the Bose remote to control the volume. Bose remote, I replied? It was lying right next to where the TV control was. What a fool I am.
Other room highlights included lots of lamps and electrical plugs (the ones by the bed are in the lamp base). The bathroom has a separate shower stall and deep soaking tub and a private toilet with a thick wood door.
My one complaint is I could hear a lot of sirens. And valet parking is $51 a night ($40 to self park).
Conrad’s Terrace Rooftop Restaurant
I had two of my four meals in the hotel. I know, that’s a shame since Chicago is such a great food city, but I was pressed for time. For lunch I met some PR friends from Edelman and we split a watermelon caprese ($9)–it sounded so divine we had to order it, but sadly it was just okay. However, my apple-chicken sausage dog ($12) topped with a tangy apple slaw was divine. It also came with shot glasses of chilled cucumber soup, mixed salad, and chocolate mousse.
Conrad’s The Terrace Restaurant
The following morning I ate at the hotel’s other restaurant, which is called The Terrace Restaurant. I met with another PR person and had the breakfast quesadilla ($12). That was good, as was the service, but they charge $6 for coffee or tea. Seems steep, right? Conrad Chicago, 521 North Rush Street, Chicago, IL; Tel.: 312-645-1500.
I left the Conrad for Gogo’s offices; it took 45 minutes to get there from the city (there was a bit of traffic). We passed O’Hare to get there, and it’s in Itasca, IL. On the upper side of the building is a big sign that reads Air Cell, which is the company’s original name, but they changed it to Gogo Inflight and then most recently to gogo (all lowercase) and have a brand-new logo. The company operates the top three floors of the five-story building where 350-plus employees work (they also have an office in Broomfield, CO).
On the third floor they had a webinar all set up for those logging in from their computers, and about five travel writers were gathered around the makeshift set. They did a quick 30-minute presentation of their new services, which look like they might be a game-changer (more on that below), and then after I took a tour of the building before having lunch and heading back out to O’Hare.
Here’s what I learned:
Passengers with laptops and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices can get online on more than 1,100 commercial planes–all domestic AirTran Airways, Delta Air Lines, and Virgin America flights and on select Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Frontier, United Airlines (just P.S. flights), and US Airways flights–as well as on almost 5,000 of the 13,000 corporate jets in America, bringing the total to more than 6,000 Gogo-equipped aircraft to date.
-Gogo’s service is only available over the U.S. and not overwater because it operates with cell towers (they have 117 but are about to get more).
-Video, not just connectivity, will be the cornerstone of Gogo’s new in-flight experience.
-The new Gogo in-air site will be airline branded, not Gogo branded as it was previously. I saw mockups of Delta and American’s branded sites and they looked clean.
-Gogo’s new service will offer certain products for free to appeal to a broader (non-business travel) audience. Some of the free content will include People magazine, Open Table, and Gilt access.
-They realize travelers want to be informed, especially if planes are late, so they’ll provide gate info, a live flight map, and weather information.
-They will probably also allow travelers free access to book cars and hotels while flying.
-The big news was that Gogo will offer streaming movies for rent. They will be streamed from the plane’s server, not from the ground, to make for smooth viewing.
-They are “testing price points” for in-flight movies… a lower price for old movies, and a higher price for newer feature movies, but the ones I saw were priced at $3.99 a pop.
Tour of gogo’s offices
-In their operations room they have four flat-screen TVs surrounding one large one. The main one had a map with all the tail numbers of planes in the air using Gogo’s service; they were colored green. It was interesting to see the red ones on the map, which were the ones that have Gogo but were out of U.S. boundaries so the GPS automatically turned off the service. FYI: Some international flights do have Gogo but it only works over the U.S. and land. I once flew from Toronto to San Francisco on Virgin America and I was surfing the Internet most of the flight.
-The other notable screens display all errors on the entire network and another has a live feed to the Weather Channel.
-They have a testing room where they, um, test all the equipment. They can somehow replicate a moving jet. It was way above my comprehension level.
-They also have a room with retired plane seats, both first class, and economy. Boy, do I want this for my house.
-I saw the two servers that each plane has in its belly to host Wi-Fi in the sky.
-Gogo’s new twitter handle is @gogo
-You can also find Gogo on Facebook
A1 RoundTrip Limo
Gogo arranged for a car service to bring me to the airport. I was shocked that instead of the driver just waiting in the town car in the parking lot, he was in the building’s lobby with a sign with my name. He took my bags and put them in the trunk just before opening my door. I was surprised that there was already a man in the driver’s seat, and the guy who helped me jumped in the passenger seat. Since these guys were both relatively big (muscular) and clean-cut I felt like I was being escorted by the secret service.
It turns out the men were brothers-in-law who recently started this new business after getting out of the Marines and corporate America. The older (driver) was training the younger. They were both super nice, respectful, and eager to please, which made me ask if they wanted my advice. I told them I liked the idea of having hand sanitizer, gum, mints, tissues, antibacterial wipes, and a cold bottle of water, but they didn’t need two of everything. I also appreciated how clean the car was–they even vacuum the roof. But the highlight was that they are paperless and in each of their five vehicles they offer Motorola tablets with bookmarks to newspapers, airlines, and flight-tracking sites so passengers can stay informed. They charge $77 to and from O’Hare to the city and they operate from Midway as well. A1-Round Trip Transportation; A1roundtrip@aol.com; Tel.: 800-339-2048.
Chicago to L.A.
Back at O’Hare there were long lines for security, but since I have some status with United I was able to stand in the Premier line. It took less than five minutes and the TSA agents made everyone take off their belts and take everything out of their pockets since some passengers go through the new Backscatter X-ray and others go through the standard metal detectors. I was randomly chosen for the former.
The gate areas were packed with summer travelers and my flight to LAX on an A320 had 105 standbys with no vacant seats except three in first class. United frequent-fliers get free domestic upgrades (except on their LAX/SFO to JFK route) but it rarely happens for me since I have a lower-level status. Therefore I was number 36 out of 41 on the list. FYI: They were offering $400 in United travel credit for volunteers to go on later flights to LAX with a connection. I passed since I hadn’t been home in three weeks.
We boarded on time and the only seat available in Premium Economy (five extra inches of legroom) was 7E. I chose that middle seat over an aisle in the back since it was way more legroom (even more than first-class) and the plane isn’t so bumpy upfront. It was a great move and I discovered it was even more comfortable than sitting in the aisle since passengers and flight attendants don’t bump you with their bags, carts, and hips while walking by. Plus the unwritten rule that frequent fliers know is that the person in the middle seat gets both armrests. I never thought I would say this but my new favorite seat (on the A320 and A319) is a middle in the bulkhead.
-Flight time for the 1,740 mile flight was 4:01. We pushed back from the gate at 3:26 p.m. (a minute late) and took off at 3:36.
-There was space to put my carry-on in front of my seat under the first-class wall.
-The captain said this flight would use 24,000 lbs. of fuel.
-We had little headwind.
-Seat-belt sign went off at 3:50 p.m. and came on twice briefly.
-Something smelled good in first class when they were serving food, but then an hour later something (or someone) smelled really bad.
-They offer food for sale in economy.
-They served drinks twice in coach.
-The biggest bummer is that United doesn’t offer Wi-Fi on most of their flights, and it really makes a flight seem long when it’s not available. I know a bunch of friends who are frequent travelers that now fly other carriers so they can use Internet in the sky–especially during the week.
What I Found on Manhattan Beach
It was nice to be home in California. The first morning I woke up at 5:30 a.m. so I decided to go for a walk on the beach and watch the sun come up. The beach was empty except for a few fishermen and surfers. Walking along the shoreline I discovered all kinds of cool creatures you never find midday. The best surprise was all the sand dollars. I’ve never seen so many in my life, and they were all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Second, there were thousands of dead little sand crabs, so something weird was going on, but I did find a live one as big as my palm. I had no idea these suckers got to be that big. Yikes! The most encouraging news is that there wasn’t much garbage like I find walking the beaches in other parts of the world (especially Florida and Malaysia), but there were still a few bottles, plastic cups, and bags. I picked some of it up–I always try to leave the beach cleaner than I find it.
Thanks to Emirates Airlines for providing me with two tickets to go see the L.A. Galaxy vs. Real Madrid soccer match. Since there was so much hype about Carmageddon I wasn’t sure I was going to use them, but since the freeways weren’t busy I grabbed my buddy Adrian and went. We made it in record time to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which has a lot of history, and I was excited for my first visit. Waiting in the Will Call/Ticket line I was shocked at how many people were speaking Spanish and wearing Real Madrid soccer jerseys. I actually felt like I was in Spain or Mexico at times. The majority of the fans were rooting for the visiting team, and at times I was too since they have a couple of the best players in the world. The highlight was when Cristiano Ronaldo scored an amazing goal. The shot was beautiful, just like the night. It was great to see a legendary team. The experience reminded me that many times (especially in Los Angeles) you can travel to a far-off land without ever leaving the city.
Next week we had to Rome to board Seabourn’s newest ship, Quest!