Diamond into Gold

The miles are the goal

The secret to a life lived well on the road are the perks accumulated as a result of frequency. Whether it is seat upgrades, bonus nights in hotels (redeemed for non-business travel, naturally), breakfast included, free wifi and the like, it makes an otherwise lonely existence worthwhile.

So imagine how crestfallen I was last week when I checked into my favorite Hampton Inn, and learned my lofty Hilton Honors status had taken a hit. The front desk clerk, who knows me by sight and name, looked up from her computer screen, and the gleam in her eye that usually shines extra bright for elite Honors members was dimmer than usual.

“You’re only Gold now?” she asked. “What happened?”

“Wait… what?!”

“It says you’re only Gold.” she said. “I thought you were Diamond.”

“I have no idea,” I said. “I certainly haven’t been traveling less.”

This week I called the Honors customer service hotline, and demanded to know the meaning of this.

“To keep your Diamond status, you needed to complete 28 trips with us last year,” the customer service representative said. “You only had 26.”

Busted! I knew immediately of two trips where I had strayed from the Hilton family. I had stayed at The Mansfield Hotel in New York City last spring and Fairmont Chicago in the fall, both while attending conferences. Two dalliances, and no more diamond: Quite a metaphor for life!

More sobering, though, might be that I was on the road more often than not over the last 52 weeks, because there were also a couple of vacation trips not included in those 28 hotel stays.

If I am going to be on the road more than half of the year, every one of those stays will count toward my reward status from now on. Hilton, ahoy, so long as I don’t become this guy: http://www.theupintheairmovie.com/#/video/4

Commuter Daddy Face Off: Austin vs. Middletown, NY

Monday morning commute
on the first full day
of Spring, 2011.

Looks like I got out of Dodge (a.k.a. Middletown, NY) just in time last night. More than half of a foot of snow is falling there today, on the heels of a couple of inches that accumulated (and swiftly melted) there, in the Poconos and beyond on Monday.

I’d like to blame the Supermoon. The full moon was so close to Earth over the weekend, its effects are lasting well into this week. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. It makes me feel better to chalk up our extended winter weather to episodic astrological events, rather than admit this is a normal spring in the Northeast.

The weather and other circumstances this week are a far cry from my road trip a week prior, when I was galavanting about Austin for SXSW Interactive. So in the spirit of Nick Bakay‘s “Tale of the Tape“, let’s pit March road trips to Austin versus those to the Hudson Valley. I think you can safely predict Austin will win, but let’s give it a go, shall we?

1. Gas prices:

  • This week I paid $63.62 to fill up the Commuterdaddymobile. I don’t recall ever spending that much on a tank of gas for my VW Passat. Heck, the pizza delivery for the family dinner the night before as about $10 cheaper.
  • Last week I rented a sweet Specialized Roubaix road bike instead of a car. Cycled to and from the Austin Convention Center from my Hampton Inn, just shy of five miles each way. In between sessions, I rode to a variety of eateries such as Juan Pelota Café at Mellow Johnny’s, or to far-flung panels at the Sheraton and University of Texas. There was one afternoon I had to race the sunset back to the hotel, but Daylight Savings Time saved me, extending the potential evening cycling time by an hour on Sunday. In the evenings, I was either hanging out with friends, or was hopping the SXSW hotel shuttles. The shuttle drivers were among the most interesting people I met at the conference. One was in the middle of securing investors for a neat sounding music app for mobile devices (there was an implied NDA in our conversation, so I will say no more than that). Another was putting her boys through college, and was moonlighting from her law enforcement day job by ferrying us SXSW revelers around town. We were in good hands.
  • Advantage: Austin.
2. Weather:
Enjoying the early spring scenery
in Austin prior to a  SXSW Interactive
session at the Hyatt.
  • Last week, I was wearing shorts daily. I managed to find some pairs of mountain bike shorts at REI that worked both for my bike commute and were sufficiently tasteful attire for the SXSW sessions. I did have to don rain pants and a light jack briefly one morning, but as soon as I started riding away from the hotel, the rain had stopped and the extra layer was no longer necessary.
  • This week the winter coat is still in heavy rotation. This morning, I was still wearing a hat to cover my ears for the early-morning dog walk. The 30- and 40-degree temperatures the last few weeks are not preventing me from riding my bike, but the snow predicted for Cape Cod tonight certainly mean there is a good chance I will not be riding tomorrow — at least not in the morning.
  • Advantage: Austin
3. Food:
Exerted will power
not to eat dessert
before the main course
at Annies Café & Bar
4. Hours:
  • Middletown: On the Monday mornings of my treks to Middletown, the alarm is typically set for 4:30 a.m. I hit the road by 5, and ideally arrive at the office around 10 a.m. The snow this past Monday made the arrival a little later, but otherwise everything was according to pattern. Tuesdays of my Middletown trips translate to sleeping in a bit. The alarm was set for 7:30 yesterday morning.
  • Austin: I stayed at the Doubletree Club in Boston the night before departing for Austin, in part to avoid getting up so early to make the drive from Cape Cod to Boston in time for my 6 a.m. flight. The other motivation is the parking included in the room rate, making it cheaper than parking for several days at the airport. Usually I stay either at the Embassy Suites or the Hilton at the airport, but this time I elected to stay off the airport property to get a bit of a break on the rate. One problem: The shuttles from the Doubletree depart at the top of the hour. To allow myself enough time to check my bag, waiting until 5 a.m. would have been cutting it close. So I chose the 4 a.m. shuttle. Alarm time? 3:45 a.m., which was roughly the same time I would have had to get up if I had stayed home.
  • Advantage: Middletown
5. Technology
  • For the Austin trip, I ditched the laptop. SXSW advice I read (or watched) prior to the trip advocated traveling as light as possible. So I decided this was an opportune time to travel with only my iPad and iPhone — especially given that I was carrying my bike helmet and shoes onto the plane. There was only once that I missed the laptop as I tried to do work in between or during conference sessions, and even then I was able to work around not having the laptop.
  • As soon as I arrived at the office in Middletown on Monday, I picked up the phone to call home to let the family know I had made it to my destination safely. I was immediately prompted for my long distance code. I rarely use my office phone for anything other than conference calls to a toll-free number, so I have not yet memorized my long distance code. I needed to look it up on my laptop. But when I awoke my laptop from sleep mode, it still thought it was conenected to the monitor at home, and therefore the start menu from which I usually fire up my password program was not visible. I had to reboot. While I did so, I tried using my mobile phone. How is it that the only time Verizon’s signal is not strong enough for my phone is when I am at either my home office or the Middletown office? All other places, I rarely experience dropped calls. In the two places I frequent the most? Dropped calls. Sure enough, as soon as my wife picked up the phone, the line went dead, causing her to worry slightly. She called me back, and the network again dropped the call. Sigh. Finally, laptop restarted and password program accessed, I could successfully dial out from my desk phone. All worry finally subsided.
  • Advantage: Austin, though it is not really Middletown’s fault that I haven’t yet put a password app on my phone. I have since memorized my long distance code too.
So there you have it. Austin wins 4-1. Sorry, Middletown. Better luck in August and September, when you’ll at least have a weather advantage.

Score one for the copy editor

I am happy from a copy editor’s perspective to report that a typo seen on the commute back in April has been corrected.

Before, taken in April:

After, taken this morning:

“Atomatically” has become automatically.

While the powers that be have dashed my hopes of being transported via Star Trek-like beam to the recall floor — or anywhere else for that matter — I will breath a little easier in that elevator. After all, if the spelling is right, the rest of the elevator must be too.

Hampton Inn should take solace that it didn’t have the type of spelling gaffe that appeared on a South Bend billboard (spied via AdFreak).

Confessing my beer sins

Forgive me, Beer Father, for I have sinned. It has been quite a number of days since my last confession.

The other night, while I was on the road, I chose to buy dinner at the grocery store, rather than add another notch in my belt at a chain restaurant. Grocery store sushi is not necessarily the finest cuisine in the world, but it sure beat the fried appetizers I might otherwise have been tempted to order from my perch at the bar.

But that was not my sin. In fact, that should be points in my favor as I try to shed some pounds and get back into trim cycling shape.

Beer Father, the good news was that grocery stores in New York, unlike here in Massachusetts, sell beer. The Hannaford Supermarket where I was shopping even sells microbrews. I had a full selection in front of me, but given that I was only staying in New York for one more night, I played it safe and bought only a 4-pack of Guinness draught cans

I hope, Beer Father, you can overlook the moderation. I will grant that it was neither a super-hopped IPA nor a double bock. However, I also did not choose the 40-ounce bottle of Bud — not that there is anything wrong with Budweiser, but Guinness is a decent enough choice for a beer aficionado. Any port in a storm, plus the leftover cans would transport more easily and safely on the trip home.

Yes, I know, Beer Father. It is a sin to buy a 4-pack and drink the contents across multiple nights. Did you hear me earlier when I espoused my fitness goal? Yes, I know Guinness touts itself as being lighter than most beers, but I was intending to ride the next morning. I have resumed my habit of bringing my bike on the road with me when traveling by car. I had ridden after work on Monday and intended to ride before work on Wednesday. Four Guinnesses (Guinni?) would provide excuses the next morning. If I were to drink only two, I knew for certain I would not avoid the ride the next day.

My confession goes deeper, though, Beer Father. Not only did I not finish the 4-pack, but when I packed up the next day, I left two soldiers behind.

Yes, Beer Father, it was indeed a mortal beer sin. I don’t know how it happened. I remembered everything else, including the plastic container with some leftover dried apricots. The beer completely slipped my mind though. Party foul of all party fouls: I never even checked the mini-fridge to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind.

Yes, I know, Beer Father. You’re right. I am getting old. I need to write things down so I remember them. Why, even today I had intended to take the bike to the shop for an annual tune-up, and completely forgot when I became immersed in work this afternoon. But forget to pack unconsumed beer? I never thought that was possible.

The silver lining, Beer Father, is the housekeeper at the Hampton Inn got a pretty nice tip. I imagine the sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the mini-fridge as he or she discovered the two unopened, chilled cans of Guinness within. Sláinte, and thanks for taking good care of me at my home away from home.

While I am baring my soul Perhaps I should admit that I am not drinking a beer as I make this confession. Yes, Beer Father, I have strayed far from the righteous beer path. I have a 6-pack of Sierra Nevada Porter sitting in my refrigerator here at home, begging to be indulged. Instead, I had water at dinner tonight.

I’m wearing an Offshore Ale Co. T-shirt, though. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?

What should I do for my penance, Beer Father? Say four @TheBeerFathers and make a Spicy Beer Mary. Will do, Beer Father, and I’ll start drinking those porters tomorrow night, too. 

Sent from my iPad

Dear, Coffee Shop Owners: Wi-Fi Influences Purchase Decisions

Commuter Daddy and my alternate personas are on vacation this week, so if you read this today or tomorrow, you didn’t see me type this and can’t prove a thing.

While reading the Wall Street Journal this morning over coffee, however, the headline alone lured me from the easy chair to the blogging chair: No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users.

The gist of the story is the growing trend, particularly among independently owned and operated coffee shops, to free up seats by enforcing laptop bans during certain hours.

Amid the economic downturn, there are fewer places in New York to plug in computers. As idle workers fill coffee-shop tables — nursing a single cup, if that, and surfing the Web for hours — and as shop owners struggle to stay in business, a decade-old love affair between coffee shops and laptop-wielding customers is fading. In some places, customers just get cold looks, but in a growing number of small coffee shops, firm restrictions on laptop use have been imposed and electric outlets have been locked.

Dear, Coffee Shop Owners, There is no more decisive way to chase away my long-term business than to completely cut off Wi-Fi access. Sincerely, Commuter Daddy.

Three places I frequent most while on the road are Hampton Inn, Panera and Starbucks. All are Wi-Fi-based choices.

Obviously, to avail yourself of the Hampton’s Wi-Fi, you have to be staying there and get the secret login code from the front desk. Still, that plus the free breakfast are the linchpin in my purchase decision. Hampton Inn is usually the first and only hotel choice for any overnight trip I am making.

Panera’s open Wi-Fi availability not only makes it my first choice for working coffee, lunch and dinner breaks while I am on the road, but it is also my first choice for off-site meetings with both vendors and staff. Panera has received a lot of my business primarily because of their Wi-Fi, and I have become a business connector for Panera, drawing in additional paying customers as a result of my Wi-Fi-based loyalty.

Starbucks is my backup plan, especially now that my Starbucks card affords me 2 hours of free AT&T Wi-Fi access at most of their locations. Hardly a trip goes by that doesn’t include at least one Starbucks visit.

The WSJ story notes that so far New York City seems to be the one place where Wi-Fi scheduling or rationing is happening on a large scale. From a Commuter Daddy perspective, that’s fine. While I prefer the environs of quirky and comfy independent coffee shops, there’s more than 150 Starbucks locations in New York City. I have plenty of alternatives.

Yes, there might be times I linger too long over a single cup of coffee at Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shop. But there are many other times I have returned sans laptop — sometimes with family, friends or co-workers — because of the brand loyalty that the Wi-Fi access has nurtured.

Perhaps the city laptop culture is different than the road warrior set, and as such different rules must apply. I have a hard time seeing, though, how restricting a perk that attracts crowds can be a wise long-term business decision.

You know you’re aging faster than you think when…

Was checking into the Courtyard by Marriott in Portsmouth, N.H. the other night when the desk clerk asked me whether I had a floor preference: First floor, or higher?

As I fumbled with my hanging clothes, keys, coffee mug and water bottle to free a hand for credit card extraction, I said, “No, no preference at all.”

Perhaps the clerk was sending me a signal, albeit subliminal, when he selected a handicap-accessible room for me? First time I’ve ever had a room with a bathroom where there was no divider between the shower stall and the toilet area (I was standing next to the toilet to take this photo).

Don’t get me wrong… the room was great. So was the staff. Everyone was very helpful and courteous. I had been staying at the Hampton Inn on my overnights in Portsmouth, but the Courtyard proved to be an equally good option.

Hampton still gets the edge for the free breakfast, though. Perhaps that, too, is a sign of my aging….