Kalen had to travel for work again, and our parents were available to puppy-sit, so I got to go along to California this time and make sure he didn’t break his face like he did a few months ago. Additionally, the timing ended up that he needed to be in California for the week featuring not only Valentine’s Day but also my birthday, so it would have been really shitty if I didn’t get to go, and I would have been an unbearable cow if I’d been left at home, so it really was better for everybody that this worked out. A lot of our trip was dictated by the fact that Kalen was traveling for work, which meant we were visiting Silicon Valley and couldn’t venture too far beyond that as he needed to be on site most days to test circuit boards or talk about electrons or something. There was plenty to see and do, though, so it didn’t really feel like we were constrained by location.
I like to travel, but not just the “being in a new place” part of it. I genuinely really enjoy the “getting there” part of traveling, too, though in a different way and for different reasons. Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul begins with a brief rant about how every airport, just by its very nature, is terrible and miserable, and while he makes some valid points, on the whole, I can’t deny that I like them. Airports, I mean. There’s something intriguing and exciting to me about travel hubs, whether we’re talking airports or train stations or metro stops. I wonder if some of that excitement has to do with the relative novelty of such locations for me. I didn’t travel much as a kid, taking my first flight when I was seventeen, and not experiencing rail travel at any level (ground, underground, or elevated, except the kiddie train at the zoo) until I went to London at twenty. Maybe I just associate those places with the excitement of going somewhere new and like them by association. There’s also something thrilling about people from all over the world being in the same place at the same time, and experiencing these junction points feels hopeful to me. But after careful consideration, I think that an undeniable part of the appeal (and likely what turns away the people who don’t enjoy this part of the journey) is that navigating them feels like a puzzle. Not a full-on head-scratcher puzzle, but one that’s just challenging enough to give me that little hit of endorphins when I solve it by finding the sign for the correct baggage claim or successfully getting to the train platform on time.
Luckily, Kalen enjoys the journey part of travel too, and we both agree that extra time at the airport is rarely wasted because there are always things to explore and people to watch and airplanes to – well, also watch, but people watching and airplane watching are different forms of entertainment, to be sure. While we don’t strive for obnoxiously long layovers, it’s nice that we both agree that a short connection isn’t worth the stress when a longer layover provides easier travel and plenty of other options to pass the time.
Out and Back: Flights and Airports
We flew from Springfield Branson National Airport (SGF) to San Francisco International (SFO) with a connection at Dallas-Forth Worth (DFW), and back the same way. We were supposed to have about a two hour layover each time, but our flight from Springfield was delayed. They told us they had to change the plane, but never really told us why. Normally if it’s for a mechanical issue, they just say that, so maybe someone on the incoming plane was horribly sick and they didn’t think they could get it cleaned in time for us to go back out in the same plane. I don’t know. We left about 45 minutes later than planned, which caused some of our fellow passengers some stress, but we were okay. Even considering the delay, SGF is a nice medium-small airport and starting or ending a journey here makes for a nice transition between vacation and real life.
Before the pandemic, Kalen traveled frequently for work, even up to the point where he was gone for a week every month. In his work-travel heyday, we signed up for the credit card sponsored by American Airlines, so that’s how we travel, and if you know you can be responsible with a credit card, I recommend it. I don’t know that American is any better or worse than its competitors; it’s just the one that flew out of our little regional airport. Kalen has quickly gotten a higher frequent flyer status with the airline, which brings its own set of perks, and we’ve accumulated a lot of points and use those for a lot of our other travel, like our upcoming trip to London, and for a special treat that we tried out on this trip: a year membership to the Admirals Club lounges.
With Kalen’s frequent flyer status, we get to request upgrades when we check in. This means that our names get put on a list to get moved up to a higher class of flight if those seats are available. In recent years, it seems that airlines have been making bigger efforts to get planes as full as possible, so the chances of upgrades are slimmer, and on connections between bigger cities, we almost never get the requested upgrade. On the smaller flights, however, we have been a little luckier. On our flight from Springfield to Dallas, we got upgraded to Main Cabin Extra, which meant we got slightly better seats (a tad roomier and about two rows farther away from engine noise) and a complementary alcoholic beverage when the flight attendants come around to pass out snacks.
On the way home, our Dallas-back-to-Springfield flight was even luckier and we were upgraded to First Class. Because these smaller flights have correspondingly smaller planes, it wasn’t like the first class you see in television and movies, but it was still much more comfortable, with wider seats, so much leg room that it felt positively wasteful for our short little hobbit legs, and a free alcoholic beverage in a real glass.
First class also comes with different, fancier snacks that you get to pick for yourself out a of a basket, and while I do love Biscoff cookies and pretzels, picking an indulgent snack from a curated collection in a basket is a luxury I usually only experience after giving blood.
If you only travel once in a while, paying for membership to the Admirals Club probably isn’t worth it, so don’t feel like you’re missing out on something super glamorous if it’s beyond your budget. That said, the discreet entrances and limited information about what the lounges are actually like gives them a certain mystique, and we were curious about what we would find on the other side of the frosted glass doors. We purchased Kalen’s membership, which allowed me to go in with him as his guest, strictly because he travels for work and we have more travel planned in the not-too-distant future, so we will have more opportunities to take advantage of the club’s benefits.
We were a little rushed through our first ever visit to an Admirals Clubs because our layover at DFW was shortened due to our delayed departure from Springfield and subsequent late arrival, but mostly because our connection to San Francisco kept changing gates to entirely different terminals. When we left Springfield, we were supposed to arrive at and leave from Terminal B and the Admirals Club was right next to both gates. It was so convenient we knew it couldn’t last, which it didn’t. When we landed, our connection had been moved to Terminal C. This wasn’t terrible, it just meant we needed to take a ride on the tram, but that wasn’t a big deal. We headed to the Admirals Club in Terminal C, and no sooner had we purchased Kalen’s membership than we received a notification that the gate had been changed again, this time to Terminal A, which meant another tram ride back in the other direction. We were already at one club, though, so we went on upstairs to see what the lounge had to offer.
One of the biggest selling points (to me anyway) of the lounge is that it includes complimentary food and beverage. If you travel a lot and know you’re going to be buying meals at the airport, a lounge membership could pretty quickly pay for itself. The options change depending on the lounge and the time of day, but when we were there, there was cavatappi pasta with a fresh tomato basil sauce, a couple salad options, and jerk chicken soup. We were hungry and so filled a small plate for our lunch. The food was served buffet style (although there were menu options that could be ordered for a small price), but was refilled and refreshed frequently, and the whole process felt like it was much faster and healthier than a lot of the vendors on the main concourse. As we didn’t have time to dawdle, we quickly looked around before heading to Terminal A and took a peek at the lounge over there before boarding our flight. One of the very helpful staff in the Terminal C lounge told us that that lounge was decorated entirely differently from the others; that it was the “older” style and the others had been renovated to newer, sleeker designs. She also said that if we had time, there would be a guacamole bar at 3:00, which sounded fun, but we would be boarding our plane by then.
The lounge at Terminal A was much brighter and more modern, as promised, and on our trip out we had just enough time to sample some dessert and use the much more comfortable bathrooms before making our way to the gate to board our flight. This is also the lounge that we visited on our way back home, and got to have a little better look at the various amenities. There was quite a bit of seating and several cubicles off at one end for travelers working on the go, and a kids’ play room, as well. The food and desserts were the same as those offered in the other lounge, but as this lounge was busier than the other, the food seemed to be replaced even more often. We split one of each of the three desserts offered (in the name of research and thorough reporting, obviously). The rice krispy treat was tasty and everything you’d expect a rice krispy treat to be. The brownie didn’t look especially enticing, (not bad by any means, but not anything special either) but was very soft and fudgy and I was pleasantly surprised. The third dessert was baklava, but rolled up in the phyllo, rather than layered and cut into triangles as is tradition. This was my favorite dessert and it made me do a happy little dance as I enjoyed the couple little bites of it. We also had a latte from one of the fanciest automated coffee machines I’ve ever seen. I’m not a snooty coffee connoisseur, but I thought it was pretty good, especially with a couple pumps of flavored syrup (but put the syrup in your cup before you dispense the coffee, or it doesn’t mix up as well and just isn’t as good).
On our way home, we also took the time to check out the Admirals Club at SFO. It was decorated in a more modern style like the Terminal A Club at DFW had been, but it certainly wasn’t exactly the same. Because we were on a morning flight home, we had breakfast in this lounge and enjoyed a much quieter and more relaxed start to our homeward journey than we would have had finding breakfast on the main concourse. There was a good variety of breakfast being offered including bagels, english muffins, streusel muffins, oatmeal, eggs (scrambled or hard boiled), overnight oats with coconut, a few toppings for those items, cereal, milk, juice and coffee, and an avocado toast bar. I had the oatmeal with a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar, a little bit of fresh fruit, and a hard boiled egg. Kalen tried the avocado toast with smoked salmon and some scrambled eggs with sun dried tomatoes on top.
In all the lounges, I was very impressed with the efficiency and friendliness of the staff, and while it didn’t feel like there were staff all over the place, they always appeared quickly to take away trash and used dishes before I could even start looking for a place to take such items myself.
We also found and appreciated (but didn’t take advantage of) a specially designated quiet area in this Admirals Club with dimmer lights, lounge chairs and increased sound dampening, perfect for the weary traveller hoping to catch a quick nap or read in peace between flights. At these chairs, and most of the others we saw in all the lounges, there were plenty of working outlets and USB connectors for charging various devices, which, along with the food, represented a definite advantage to visiting such lounges for the frequent traveler, and I’m looking forward to exploring other lounges on future travels.
We stayed at the AC Hotel by Marriott in Downtown San Jose. It was a nice moderately priced hotel with modern design and comfortable amenities, including a fitness center and an outdoor pool. We used the fitness center several times, but didn’t take advantage of the pool because, although it was heated, it was not heated as warmly as would have been comfortable in the cooler-than-usual weather. I don’t know if they just don’t keep it as warm as, say, the pool at the Y at home, or if the heater just couldn’t keep up with the cold snap that came through, but either way, we decided to give the pool a miss. We did stop to appreciate the chairs beside the pool, however, and debated whether they were supposed to be art or if they were designed to accommodate people with tails. In hindsight, I suppose the design keeps water from pooling in the seats, but it still seems excessive.
The room itself was small but comfortable and I have to say that I’m really getting behind this newer trend of using vinyl or laminate flooring in hotel rooms. I know it’s not as effective as carpet at deadening sound, but it certainly feels more hygienic. The bathroom, too, felt nice, although it featured another trend that I don’t love as much: a glass barn-door (although, I’ve only seen this in California, so I don’t really know how widespread it is). Rather than a normal wooden, hinged door for the bathroom, the bathroom was closed off with a frosted glass panel that slides over the doorway on a rail. It’s pretty. It saves space, since the door doesn’t swing in or out, but it doesn’t provide much privacy, and I was always a little afraid I was going to slide the door a little too enthusiastically and shatter it into a billion tiny shards that would slice up my feet and I’d have to pay for the room damage and a trip to the ER. My only other complaint about the bathroom was the lack of towel hooks. We were given three towels (which was exactly the right number, one for Kalen, one for me, and one for my hair; no complaints there), but there was only one towel hook in the entire bathroom. We couldn’t even throw a towel over the shower rod to dry because it was a (very nice and well-designed) walk-in shower with a glass floor-to-ceiling wall. We ended up using clothes hangers to hang our towels, which worked, but wasn’t terribly convenient because more than once, I showered only to realized I had failed to bring the towels back into the bathroom ahead of time. It also would have been even less convenient if we had more formal clothes that needed to be on those hangers instead. The shower also could have benefitted from one of those little things in the corner to put your foot when you shave your legs. I liked that the toilet had a dual flush option for saving water, but even after using it all week, I was never confident that one button used less water than the other, so I’m not totally sure it was installed properly. Also the seat for the toilet was comically large (I didn’t take pictures because I thought maybe you guys wouldn’t want toilet photos, okay?), and after getting used to it all week, there came a point on the way home where it took me far too long to realize that the toilet at the airport was unnervingly cold because the seat was up and I was sitting on the porcelain. So that was weird.
The hotel did provide complimentary lavender sachets to place under your pillow, which I thought was fun, and parking was surprisingly simple given the location, with a large parking garage next door, a flat daily parking rate with unlimited coming and going during your stay, and the levels assigned to the hotel always had plenty of space (though they did fill up much more on the weekend, which was not surprising).
The building seemed to be relatively new, or at least recently updated. I mean, it didn’t still smell like fresh paint or anything, but it felt clean and modern. Our room was on the sixth floor, so we used the elevator a lot, which worked reliably, but did make a few disconcerting noises. You know that scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring when the fellowship goes through the Mines of Moria, and they find Durin’s tomb, and while Gimli is wailing about the loss of his extended family, Pippin gets distracted and accidentally knocks a skeleton down that big well shaft or whatever it is, and then Gandalf yells, “Fool of a Took!” and then everyone waits with bated breath as the orcs and goblins start stirring with distant, echoing clangs and bangs making their way up through the mine, slowly getting closer and louder before they attack? That’s what the elevator sounded like after you pushed the call button and waited for it in the vestibule. Thankfully, the doors never opened to reveal a murderous cave troll, so we were fine.
The best thing about the hotel, though, was its proximity to so many great restaurants just a short walk away. We walked to dinner almost every night and enjoyed a great variety of options in a vibrant downtown area. I’ll be sharing our fabulous food experiences in the next post, so make sure you come back for that.
Even though there was a lot to enjoy within walking distance of our hotel, we still had to drive quite a bit, which went far better than I expected. I am often nervous about driving rental cars in general, as they tend to be larger than the tiny car I am used to driving. I was even more nervous this time because California traffic has its own reputation and is far more serious than the traffic typically found in the rural midwest. You can imagine, then, my mixed feelings when Kalen revealed that he had sufficient reward status with the rental company to choose from the “Executive” aisle and, after scoping out the options for something that could accommodate our large suitcase and the three large flight cases of equipment that he needed for work, selected a Mercedes SUV with more bells and whistles than an multi-circus clown choir. It was a nice car, but the first morning we were taking Kalen to work and found that my seatbelt, which had been fine the night before, didn’t work. The button was stuck in down position, so I couldn’t get the belt to buckle. I wrestled it for several minutes before jumping in the backseat while Kalen drove to work. After dropping him off, I called the rental car company and explained that I didn’t want to have to ride in the backseat all week and would like to switch out to something else. Thankfully, this wasn’t a problem, and I drove to the San Jose airport to swap. The San Jose airport car rental had a far smaller selection than SFO had had the previous evening, and I spent a long time walking up and down the aisle trying to find the balance between too luxurious (another nerve-wracking Mercedes like I had just returned) and far too practical for vacation (a Toyota Camry). Because, after all, this was an opportunity to drive something I wouldn’t normally get to drive, but I also didn’t want to be a jumpy, nervous mess every time I had to drive across Silicon Valley. I eventually gave into my inner 16-year-old’s begging and went with a Mustang convertible. After all, we had delivered the flight cases to Kalen’s work and they would be shipped back home, so we really only had to accommodate our big suitcase after this, and I needed something with at least a little pick-up-and-go for when I had to get up to speed on the highway with only a short little onramp.
It wasn’t ever really warm enough to ride with the top down, but we figured we had to at some point, and the perfect opportunity presented itself on our final full day in California as we explored the Monterey area and inadvertently found ourselves in the line for 17 Mile Drive. The weather had warmed up a little, enough that driving relatively slowly was very tolerable, and having the top down meant that we had a much wider view of the beautiful surroundings.
I ended up being very pleased with how well I handled driving in California and I think it comes down to two major points that I would recommend for any travel situation where you’re driving yourself around unfamiliar territory. The first was CarPlay. This is the feature built into nearly all new cars that allows you to plug your iPhone in and the phone and the car communicate virtually seamlessly. There’s a parallel feature for Android phones that I assume works just as well but I’ve never used it. CarPlay allowed me to use the GPS on my phone to give me directions for wherever I wanted to go, and since it used Apple Maps on my phone (instead of a different GPS program built into the car), I also got extra notification on my Apple Watch. In the event that I missed a turn, it rerouted and I never had a problem getting to where I needed to be.
The other navigational trick that I recommend is closely tied to the first and that is setting your GPS (whatever you end up using) to avoid highways whenever possible. If you’re in a hurry, this might not be the best option, but if you’re just puttering around town anyway, I found that this option provides a much more intimate view of the place you’re visiting. It took me about five minutes longer to pick up Kalen for lunch, but I got to admire the local architecture, so different from what we have at home, and got glimpses of yards and gardens in a different climate than my own. Because my average speed was closer to 30 or 40 miles per hour, I got to really appreciate my surroundings, rather than whizzing by them at 80 miles per hour surrounded by other vehicles and highway walls. The “getting there” was made that much more enjoyable by slowing down, and then, more relaxed, the “being there” was more enjoyable too.
Do you have any travel tips you swear by? How do you find joy in the journey? Leave a comment below and keep an out for my next post detailing all the awesome food we enjoyed in California!
Ha! Chairs for people with tails! Loved it. And you know what? MY 16-year old self fantasized about a Mustang convertible TOO! Those 1965/66 Mustangs were the height of delight and beauty! Enjoyed this writing very much!
Thanks, Brenda! I’m glad you enjoyed it! There really is something special about a convertible, isn’t there?