Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hectic holiday travel: East to West coast in 2 days

It has been a totally crazy week, collected the last batch of my experiment data Monday morning, took an exam in the evening, and then worked on slides for my lab presentation way into the night. On Tuesday, did last minute changes to the slides and then did the presentation; and after that needed to fix up all the stuff I haven't written into my lab note. Then on Wednesday, capped off my rotation with my PI, went to a seminar, did last minute Christmas gift shopping, and then started packing two hours before setting for the holidays. And all that busy mess lead to even more hicups along the way...

So I headed out to the 30th street station around 3pm to take the SEPTA R1 regional rail to the airport. 30th street station is huge, and the SEPTA platforms are kind of hard to find. Turned out that they are hidden behind all the Amtrak platform entrance and ticket offices. Somehow people decided that train tickets to airports should be priced higher then other trains. SEPTA implamented this by defining the airport to be at the highest priced pricing zone; also, all airport tickets are rush hour rates no matter what time you go. But even after all those premiums, taking the train is still much cheeper then taking airport shuttles, such as lady liberty.

The 30th station platform actually looks pretty nice, it has an old-styled look to it. There was an electronic display that showed the next trains comming and if it's on time. Turned out that display was fluctuating between "on time", "late 1 min" and "late 2 mins" every few seconds...... whatevers, it's all approximations.

Interestingly, all the pillars that don't have other stuff beneath it (ie. right over people's heads) have rows of spikes installed on them. Maybe to prevent birds from pooing on passenger's heads; or maybe someone did get the "avian potty treatment" and complained or sued.

Here comes the train. The terminal is elegant, but the train it self is ugly and utilitarian. Unlike in Kansai, Japan, where the airport train is especially clean and beautiful (partly justifying the airport train fee premium), This R1 train is just as ugly as all the other lines.

The interiror consists of also utilarian rows of seats. The cars are not clean, but not too dirty either. Maybe about on par with the trains in Taiwan 10 years ago (臺鐵十年前的整潔度). I was expecting something worse... (as dirty as the SEPTA trolleys), so I guess I was pleasently surprised.

The South street bridge. I thought they were going to just bomb it down, but seems like they are doing it slower. Maybe bombing stuff down is more Hollywood style?

The last station before getting to the airport. All suburban stations are just un-manned platforms, this one doesn't even have ticket vending mechines.

The airport is just around the corner

And here I am at the airport train platform of terminal D. The departure terminals are just across the railroad overpass.

Where do you get to see revolving doors other then at the airport? The airport look much different then what I saw last time, as it's mostly covered in wooden boards for renovations.

Check-in lines are a little too long for comfort. At first I thought it might just be because of the Christmas holiday crowd, but then I started worrying about the check-in cut off times. Check-in closes 45mins before the flight, and I got there just 1hr prior to the scheduled time, as this has always been fairly early judging from past experience. And then I started hearing that every single flight that day was delayed due to fog, so I won't have a problem with the check-in cut off. Turns out the long lines are because agents have to work out every single person's connections, as people are not going to make the connections when the first flight is delayed 2hrs. And of course, no one's happy about the connection mess-ups, so the lines were hardly moving.

They started processing the people without connections first, and then taking the time to take care of us mess-ups. Eventually, I made it up there, and was presented with the "official story":
My flight from Philly to Houston was delayed 2hrs because of bad weather in Houston, and our plane was supposed to come in from Houston. (Will, looking at that whole row of "canceled" Southwest & USair flights, I guess "delayed" means I at least have a chance of getting some where...) So I was presented with 2 options: 1) return to the Philly airport the next day at 3 in the morning for the next flight out that can make a connection to California, 2) fly out to Houston on the delayed flight anyways, and betting my luck on the connecting flight also being delayed; if not, stay in Houston for the night and continue the journey the following morning. I asked for transfering to even later flights so I wouldn't need to catch a 4am flight, but was told that all the later flights were fully booked until the end of the holidays (how sweet? to think of it, I don't know if this is just a lie to keep things simple on the agent's side...).

I made some phone calls before making a decision. For a moment I thought that I might be stuck in Philly until next year. Luckily, I got a friend in Houston who's willing to take me in for the night, what a relief! So I told the agent to just cancel my original 2nd flight and rebook for the next day, I don't believe I'd be so lucky that the 2nd flight would also delay, and besides, I got this chance to see a good friend, a chance that presented it self in one of the utmost bizarre way.

So I checked in, got my boarding pass and entered the waiting area with 2 hours to kill. Remembering that the international departure terminal is much nicer then the messy and crowded domestic terminals, I walked over looking for a place to relax. Walking from terminal D all the way to the international terminal A, the domestic terminals of this airport seemed much better this time around. It look completely renovated into a something more along the lines of a mall. But I went on, and found a seat in terminal A that's next to an outlet. I pulled out my notebook, and rummaged through my backpack... "Oops, where's my MacBook power adaptor?" I couldn't remember if I packed it into my bag or may it be dropped when that TSA officer was going through my pack looking for that liquids/gels ziploc bag I forgot to pull out? I ended up walking all the way back to the TSA check point. Sure enough, they did not see a missing white power block. And I remembered that my 3.5-year-old MacBook battery only holds 1hr of juice. Okey, my trip was just elongated into 2 days, which pushed back my original plans, and I am stuck in an airport for 2 hours with a computer on my back that couldn't provide me the needed entertainment for time-kill. Oh, not to mention I have to get a new power block for the rest of the holidays, given it's an Apple, must be at rip-off prices.

A long night stranded at the crowded airport. Without the powerblock, I didn't want to pull out my MacBook, but still had time to kill. On the good side, my Clie TH55 PDA was still as reliable as it was for all those years, and it connected nicely to the Philly airport free WIFI. I was up and running with my email and Facebook in a second, while a girl shareing the same power outlet with me never made got a usable connection on her Dell notebook. Meanwhile, a quick check on Continental's website showed that my original connecting flight was still on time 1.5 hours after I checked in. I figured I made the right choice, and smiled.

The flight wasn't as packed as it should be, seems that there's a fair amount of people who canceled because they could not make the next connection. Somehow, through all the mess, I forgot to have dinner, and was having a stomach ache. Snack sized cheeseburgers and salad were served on the flight, which did help a little. I had a father and his kid sitting next to me. The toddeler was so cute that it made me fall into that deep thinking mode, wondering when would I have a family...... But I was not left in wonder-land for long, as the kid somehow found it amusing kicking me continuously. The father looked apologestic, but didn't want to be mean to his child, so it ended in a cycle of kicking and the father pulling the legs back, and the legs struggled free and started kicking again.

When landing at Houston, the fog outside was downright amazing, it seemed that visibility was less then 10 meters. I can totally understand the delay now, but also amazed how we could still land perfectly with radar assistance. Once I got to the baggage clam, a fire alarm sounded and there was an automatic anouncement telling people to evacuate; yet I see no one, absolutely no one evacuating.

I've only been to Houston twice on grad school interviews, and now the city already seems oddly familiar to me, somehow I could still make out a sense of what is where in the dark. From what I've hear from my friend, Houston sounds, in a way, to be a funner place then Philly. It's easier to get good food, it's closer to the sea, there's good shrimp and crab fishing at near by Galveston, and there's a very amusing culture of Texans and Latinos. And best of all, everything is very cheap. On the other hand, everything is so far away and there's not as much night life as Philly.

The next morning, it was still very foggy in Houston. But it's still tolerable for driving and my flight mannaged to take off smoothly.

Breakfast was nice on the plane, with a good book (Sarah's key) and good music. The food was rather simplistic, but it's been so long since I last had a breakfast this relaxing. I liked Continental for being the only domestic carrier to be serving free food and keeping the planes clean, and I really am enjoying it.

The snow caps in SoCal was still as stunning as it was. I have this very nice girl from San Antonio sitting next to me on the plane, who was so excited about comming to the Inland empire/LA area, and was constantly asking all sorts of questions about the area (the weather, scenery, ...etc). Once the snow covered mountains came into sight she was frantically taking picture after picture after picture. Somehow, all the people I've seen from San Antonio were very excited about trips and outings, and the excitment was amazingly contagious. (Why I always manage to have a much more enjoyable conversation with girls I don't feel attracted to is way beyond me)

Ahh, the sun shine, the cool dry air, a feeling much missed.

And of course, Puff welcomes me back by taking over my coat momentarily.

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