1. Thirty years ago yesterday, I took my first airplane ride.  I flew from RDU to DCA aboard an Eastern Air Lines DC-9 to visit my aunt and uncle.  Who knew I’d wind up living here? And who knew Eastern would now be out of business?  Five years and one month after that first airplane ride, I took my first flying lesson.  I was 15 years old.
  2. Seriously people, what else can an airline charge extra for?
  3. Sometimes I get bored with the airline mileage game, then I have to fly somewhere on an airline where I have no status.  Suddenly, I remember why I play the airline mileage game.

OK, this is random, probably only meaningful to me (and MrsMJonTravel), and maybe even petty on my part.  But I felt like blogging about it.  If you think I’m being difficult, comment to the blog.  I’d love to hear alternative points of view.

It’s probably a good idea to start this post with a little background.  I recently sent what I believe to be my 2nd complaint ever to American Airlines.  I wrote an actual letter, and faxed it to AA Customer Relations.  Long story short, I described my summer of travel problems at the hands of American (some within their control, some not), and I made a request.  Recognizing that American is under absolutely no obligation to do so, I kindly asked that they cancel a reservation I have for travel to Miami during the week of Thanksgiving, and refund the purchase price.

Frankly, I don’t think American is currently running a reliable enough airline to reasonably assure an arrival in Miami somewhere near the scheduled time, and on this particular trip, I simply don’t have the luxury of risking it.  Yes, I know I could say this about any airline, but no other airline has so interrupted my travel plans on very important trips this summer.  So there you have it.  I didn’t really expect American to do what I asked, but I would certainly have been impressed if they went the extra mile.

Well, here’s what they had to say:

Dear Mr. Jackson:

Thank you for contacting Customer Relations. We welcome the opportunity to respond to your concerns.

You’ve certainly been on too many flights lately that have had operational issues. We apologize. We know that on-time performance is one of the most significant aspects of our service because we recognize that our customers make important plans based on our schedules. At the same time, however, we recognize that some delays are inevitable regardless of our efforts, and I’m very sorry that you were inconvenienced when your flights have not operated on time.

In evaluating your request for a refund of your tickets in November, we carefully reviewed our policies and procedures as they relate to this matter. While I am sorry for the situation, we must respectfully decline. I am sorry.

Please be assured that we will continue to focus on our commitment to improve the timely operation of our flights. We will use your comments to remind all of us that we must do a better job of making situations such as you described a little less frustrating.

Sincerely,

(Name Withheld)

Customer Relations

American Airlines

OK, so they didn’t refund my non-refundable ticket.  And Lord knows, I could’ve gotten along all day without the “we have carefully reviewed our policies on this matter” which we all know is a load of hooey.  Given the things I described in my letter, I would have expected more.  Something like, “thank you for flying American.”  Or “we look forward to welcoming you aboard future flights.”  Or maybe even “we look forward to providing you with better service on future flights.”  OK, some combination of all that.  Maybe I just needed to vent.  Sure, had they fascinated me by doing the unexpected and provided the refund, I probably wouldn’t be posting this.  But this response left me wanting more….way more than a refund for a service they’ve yet to provide.  What say you?

As I posted yesterday, American Airlines has added a new option to its “Your Choice” line of travel options.  With the introduction of Express Seats, travelers who do not fly enough to earn elite status can access better seats at the front of the cabin for a price ranging from $19 to $39 dollars.

Bottom line, I’m fine with it.  I don’t have to pay the fee since I hold elite status on American.  But I can tell you, if I didn’t have that status, and found myself flying American, I’d certainly consider springing for this depending on the situation.  Not only do you get a better seat, but you also receive Group 1 boarding, and that may be one of the best things about elite status.  Assuring space for my carry on bag is a big deal, and it’s one I would at least consider paying a few bucks for (along with a better seat) from time to time.

All that said, it’s hard not to wonder when the airlines are going to run out of things to charge for.  I do believe that there is a limit to what most of the traveling public will tolerate.  Apparently, we haven’t arrived there yet.  One thing for sure, when we get there, the airlines won’t figure it out until well after the rest of us.

Blogged about by several, but I still wanted to comment.  Delta announced on their great blog on 8/17 that their previously announced plans to allow Gold, Platinum, and Diamond Medallion SkyMiles members to upgrade award tickets has been implemented.  This is just one of several real enhancements to the SkyMiles program, which you can review here.  Another change is that companion upgrades now begin clearing at 24 hours prior to departure, after all Medallion upgrades have cleared.  Still not as good as having your companion clear with you, but certainly better.

I’ve posted many times about my affinity for Delta Air Lines, but my displeasure with Delta SkyMiles.  The changes they are making represent some improvement.  I hope the availability of award seats for premium class tickets at reasonable mileage levels improves as well.  Another change I’d love to see is the ability to redeem SkyMiles to upgrade from any coach fare.  From my perspective, the ability to upgrade using miles is a big plus, and I would like to have the ability to do so from any fare.  Delta should at least make this available to Medallions.

Unless something happens, Delta will be the airline I fly most this year.  I’ll be watching as SkyMiles evolves, hopefully for the better.

American Airlines has joined a host of other airlines in making popular seats usually reserved for elite travelers available to the unwashed masses for a fee. If you purchase one of these seats, you also receive Group 1 boarding. Right now these seats are only available for purchase at self service check in machines. I would hope that AA is working on making this available at AA.com as well. Visit AA.com/yourchoice for more information.

This has been pretty widely blogged about, but since I first heard about it via a Tweet from Carol Margolis, she gets the hat tip. 

JetBlue has reintroduced its “All You Can Jet” pass for fall travel.  Cost is $499 for flights on all days except Fridays and Sundays, and $699 for any day, the All You Can Jet pass is a neat marketing idea to gin up travel in the traditionally slow period following Labor Day.  The pass is good for travel for 30 days beginning September 7th, and is only available for purchase through Friday, or “while supplies last” so jump on it.

OK, this is actually my second attempt at this.  I’ve been tinkering on and off with a Facebook fanpage for the blog for a few months.  Right now, it’s just a way to follow blog content on Facebook.  In the future, perhaps it will be more.  In the meantime, if you’re on Facebook, become a fan of Marshall Jackson on Travel.

I’m not a big Omni Hotels guy.  I like (actually love) their hotels, but the chain just doesn’t have the reach that I need in number of properties and locations.  That said, I always enjoy the opportunity to stay at an Omni Hotel, and my recent 4-night stay at the Omni Charlotte was no different.

My day job had selected the Omni Charlotte as the location for our annual manager’s meeting, and I could not be more pleased with the choice.  Downtown Charlotte (OK, they call it uptown) has really come a long way since my days as a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  Back in the day, the sidewalks rolled up at 5pm, and there was nothing to do downtown.  Not the case anymore!  While our days were filled with work, the options to entertain ourselves in the evenings in the immediate vicinity of the hotel were many.

From check in to check out the staff was uniformly outgoing and friendly, which I suppose is to be expected in a southern city.  The room itself, a 6th floor King, was big and comfortable.  The big standard TV was a throwback to the 80′s but also an indication that the hotel may be nearing the need for an interior “refresh.”  Wireless internet was available throughout the hotel, and was complimentary due to my Omni Select Guest membership.  I did not utilize the workout facility or pool, so I can’t comment on their condition.  More motivated colleagues reported the gym to be on the smallish side.

There was no lack of dining options near the hotel.  Two favorites of mine for the week were LaVecchia’s Steak and Seafood and the Ri Ra Irish Pub.  I also enjoyed the steaks at Fleming’s, which is located in the Epicenter, and connected to the hotel via pedestrian bridge.  The Epicenter is also home to Whiskey River and Howl at the Moon, two fun spots to unwind after a long day of meetings.

A couple of random notes:  Charlotte has a new light rail transit system, Lynx, which can be useful in moving around certain parts of the city.  Taxi fare from the airport to downtown was a fixed fare of $25.00.

All in all, a good week, a good hotel, and a great stay in Charlotte.  The Omni Charlotte is near everything in downtown, and is worth considering should business or pleasure take you to Charlotte.

Did you know MJonTravel is now on YouTube?  I barely knew myself.  There’s only one whopping video up there now, but I will post more video content from my travels going forward, and link you there from the blog when I do.  In the meantime, you can subscribe to my YouTube channel here.

MrsMJonTravel and I recently completed an 11-night Mediterranean cruise aboard the downright gorgeous (IMHO) Celebrity Equinox.  There’s so much to say, and so much to write about that I just don’t think it’s possible to place it all in one post. Next time, I will blog each day of a cruise like this.

The Cruise

Our 11-night, July 5, 2010, sailing aboard Celebrity Equinox originated at the port of Civitavecchia, about 45 minutes outside of Rome.  The itinerary included stops in Santorini, Mykonos, Istanbul (2 days), Kusadasi (Ephesus), Athens, and Naples, along with 3 sea days.  We booked our cruise through our travel agent, Michelle, at McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia.  I can’t say enough about what a great asset an experienced travel agent can be on trips like this.  Michelle also arranged our private tour of Ephesus, which I will post about separately.

Embarkation

We arrived in Rome 5 days before the cruise to do some touring, and ultimately travel down to Naples where we would visit friends who were cruising with us.  We traveled with them by car back to Rome and Civitavecchia on embarkation day, so I am not able to share any insight into the transfer process from the airport to the port.  Arriving by car, you must park first, then take a shuttle bus to the terminal where you drop your luggage and accomplish check in formalities.  The terminal appears to be a temporary facility, basically a huge tent.  There was a confusing mish-mash of people and luggage at the drop off point, but we were ultimately able to figure things out in a couple of minutes, drop our bags and proceed towards security.

We arrived around 2PM, which is a little later than I normally prefer.  I know the cruise documents tend to always say arrive at 2PM, but my experience has been that ships are usually boarding by noon, if not before.  I like to beat the crowd.  For what it’s worth, 2 other friends of ours arrived in Rome the morning of the cruise, and were on board the ship before noon.  While things were a little chaotic in the terminal, we were through security and standing at the check in desk within 5 minutes.  I had completed online check in several days before our arrival, so the process at the desk was painless and quick.  One item of note: Celebrity collects your passport and holds them until the last sea day of the cruise.  This has something to do with Turkey not being an EU member according to the letter of explanation provided.  The whole thing worked out fine, but it is not something I’d experienced previously, so be advised that you won’t have your passport for most of the cruise.  And with that, we were off to board the ship.  The whole thing was pretty painless.

The Ship

Equinox was built by Myer-Werft in Papenburg, Germany and entered service last year.  I believe that this is the same shipyard that produced Royal Caribbean’s Radiance Class of ships, and call me crazy, but I think I can see some of the influence of RCL in Equinox.  Lots of glass, beautiful atriums, etc.

Celebrity Equinox
The Lawn Club

After boarding, we dropped our carry on bags in our stateroom and headed to the Oceanview Cafe for lunch.  The Oceanview Cafe was excellent.  Granted it’s a buffet, but Celebrity exceeded my expectations for food quality and presentation in this area.  Following lunch, we met up with our fellow cruisers and headed to The Lawn Club for a pre-sail away cocktail.

Muster drill took place around 5PM, and I have to compliment Celebrity.  Our muster station was Michael’s Club on deck 5.  No more dragging your life jacket to muster.  You proceed to your station where you will be provided a life jacket (if needed).  For the drill itself, we watched a very well produced video detailing the procedures we should follow in the event of an emergency.  Soon enough, we were on our way back up top for sail away.

Our Stateroom

Stateroom 1631 was an Aqua Class cabin on deck 11, port side.  I found the stateroom to be very well designed, functional, and comfortable.  Storage space was plentiful.  I appreciated the large 32″ television (by cruise ship standards) though I wouldn’t spend a great deal of time in the room over the next 11 days!

Stateroom 1631 – Celebrity Equinox

I appreciated the little touches that come with Aqua Class including daily bottled water and iced tea, as well as Hansgrohe shower panels.  MrsMJonTravel appreciated the pillow menu.  :)  I think the highlight of Aqua Class was that it includes seating in the specialty restaurant Blu.  More on that later.

Around the Ship

I think all ships are beautiful, but Equinox is especially so.  The ship is simply a touch above others in design and appearance.  I wouldn’t say there’s a “Wow!” factor like you get when you first see a Royal Caribbean Freedom or Oasis Class vessel.  Equinox is simply elegant and impressive.

Celebrity Equinox Tendered in Santorini
Atrium View – Celebrity Equinox

There was no lack of things to do on board.  I won’t mention them all because I can’t.  Some activities we simply did not have the time to enjoy.  I have heard that the hot glass show is not to be missed, but miss it we did.  No time.  Equinox is equipped with a very nice gym that I was able to make use of on a couple of occasions.  I didn’t feel bad for not going every day though, as all of our tours included a significant amount of walking, hiking, etc.  I think this may be the first cruise I’ve taken that I didn’t come back with “more of me” than I left with!

Of course, no vacation would be complete without a little cocktailing, and Celebrity did not disappoint.  Of the numerous bars and lounges on board, I would say that the Martini Bar and Molecular Bar were our favorites.  Check out this handiwork from one of the master mixologists at Molecular Bar.

A Molecular Bar Concoction

Dining

Dining is a highlight of any cruise, and Celebrity Equinox mostly delivered.  A great benefit of our Aqua Class stateroom was that we dined in the specialty restaurant Blu, instead of the main dining room.  Our service was top notch during the entire cruise, and the meals, while a little lighter than typical cruise fare, were uniformly excellent.  Two of our friends were not traveling in Aqua Class, and took many of their evening meals in the main dining room.  I’ll let them comment to the blog, but I believe they found their service disappointing, but it did improve after moving to a new table.  My own experience in the dining room only included one brunch buffet, and one lunch.  Service was disappointing during the brunch, but quite good during lunch.  I’ll have more to say on the brunch service later.

All six of us dined together at all of the specialty restaurants on board including Murano (French), Silk Harvest (Asian), and Tuscan Grille (Italian Steakhouse).  Heck, we went to Tuscan Grille twice!  All of them are unique and wonderful in their own way.  We tried every sushi roll at Silk Harvest, and the steaks at Tuscan Grille were fabulous (and the service was even better).  If I had to pick a favorite, I would have to say that Murano wowed me.  My filet was perfectly done, and finished on open flame tableside.  I’m sorry I didn’t take a picture!

Constructive Criticism

Celebrity offers a wonderful premium drink package.  I don’t remember the price, but believe it to be somewhere in the vicinity of $50 dollars per day per person (plus 15 percent gratuity), you have unlimited access to soda, specialty coffees, bottled water, wines by the glass, beers, and cocktails up to $12 dollars in value.  Suffice it to say we jumped on that.  I’m not sure what kind of issue that many members of the bar staff have with these packages, but it’s obvious that they do.  The pool bar even had a little handwritten sign for drink package receipts that had a “frowny face” written beside it in full view of guests.  I don’t think I’m imagining things when I say that well north of 50 percent of the bar staff I interacted with during the cruise seemed to be annoyed that I’d ordered a drink when they learned I had a package.  When ordering a Mimosa during the brunch service previously mentioned, you would’ve thought I’d offended the wait staff when they saw that I had a drink package.  Not sure what the problem is, but if Celebrity is going to offer the package, they need to fix whatever issue the staff has with it.

MrsMJonTravel and I are Celebrity Captain’s Club elite members, and we receive some really great benefits as a result.  A certain amount of complimentary laundry service, and 90 minutes of complimentary internet service are among my favorite benefits!  Celebrity also offers an afternoon cocktail party each day for it’s Captain’s Club Elite guests.  The only issue is that it’s from 4PM to 6PM.  I’d love to visit with my fellow cruisers, but that’s just too early.  I wish Celebrity would consider moving that to the 6PM to 8PM timeframe.  Just a suggestion.

Disembarkation

Getting off the ship is always a little sad, but Celebrity has really got its stuff together.  About 2 days before the end of the cruise, we received a letter in our cabin advising us where and when to meet for disembarkation.  We were assigned to the theater with a 6:45AM departure time.  We did as instructed, and upon arriving at the theater, were immediately directed to the gangway for departure.  We walked off the ship, collected our bags, and left.  Total time investment: 5 minutes!  Absolutely incredible if you ask me.  Customs/Immigration issues are handled behind the scenes between Celebrity and the Italian government.  Basically, you walk off the ship and leave.  I can’t imagine a better experience departing a ship.

In Summary

I can’t say enough good things about this beautiful ship.  My favorite things were our dining team in Blu, the solarium, and the Pool Bar staff who took great care of us, and we rewarded accordingly.  Celebrity Equinox is very well designed, easy to navigate, and overall seems like a “happy ship.”  I think you can book your vacation aboard Celebrity Equinox with confidence.  I’d gladly do so again.  Stay tuned for details about the ports of call.

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