Thursday, April 17, 2008

Driving Green

I like National Car Rental. I may be one of the few.
Why? Well I have been driving a hybrid Prius all week.

At any car rental counter it is possible to discuss options and sometimes choose what type of car. I have gotten free (or $10 per WEEK) upgrades because the keys to the convertible were in reach but I couldn't be given a car in my class until they finished cleaning one. Most of the car rental companies have a frequent rental program or a gold or exec membership program (most fee based, some free). Those programs often allow a renter to bypass the counter but that in turn eliminates the choice of vehicle. You can specify a preferred class of car but not a preferred make let alone model. And you get "upgrades" to what some mysterious "them" believes to be the best car.

With National Emerald Club, I get to pick (from my reserved class) any car I want without stopping at the counter. Make, model, color, everything. I have even selected cars based on what state the plates are from. It also makes it easier to swap keys if the first choice is not as clean [my biggest problems so far with National] or smoke free as I would like. They check a license and payment method as you leave but most of the paperwork is "on file".

So this week I picked the Prius.
I thought it would be fun and different.
I had to get help starting it.

Ok, I figured out the key thing. There is a traditional key and key fob with lock/unlock. The key was in the door lock when I got there and the key fob is larger than many others. It took me a minute but I did figure out that the key fob is really the key. There is not a traditional insert key and turn starter. You put the key fob thingy in is "port" then press the "power" button (the button is what clued me into looking for a non-traditional key scenario).

Here is where it got tricky. I guess I didn't actually have my foot on the brake when I pressed the power button - despite all good training and personal experiences driving a stick most of my life. The car started but a light said "brake". There was a parking brake - it was off - and I even tried putting it on and taking it off again. No luck. And as long as it said "brake" I couldn't put the car in gear. When the nice staff member parked another one on the aisle I asked for help. He had me turn off the car and start it with my foot on the brake. Turns out (yes, I did this again later) that all I really needed to do was put my foot on the brake and press the power button again.

Changing gears is a little odd also. This is an automatic with forward and reverse only - no 1st and 2nd. And it is all electronic. The lever does not stay next to the label. You move it to reverse and the screen shows you in reverse and the beeping (inside the car for the driver not outside for others) begins but the lever goes back to its original location. After backing out the space, you move the lever to forward and the screen reflects that, the beeping stops, and off we go. When parking there is a "Park" button to press and the screen reflects that setting. The lever is not on the floor or the steering wheel either - it is on the dash, to the left of the CD player. Different; but it wasn't too hard to get used to it.

As with many newer cars, there is a touch screen panel in the center. This has audio and climate control settings and would probably have the GPS maps if that service was built in. The screen defaults to showing the current used and regenerated and has a mode to show the flow: using battery or engine or both or regenerating from motion or engine or both. This is done with a schematic and arrows and colors. It is pretty neat and I wish I could be a passenger for a while so I could just watch it.

The audio controls have a "type scan" It is an HD radio so it can scan for a type of stations such as rock or news. Country did not seem to be an option but rock found a country station or two for me [probably because most current hits in country are very close to classic rock in style]. There is a also a traffic search. This is a little different. The type search is off the tags of the station. The traffic search seems to be trying to find an actual real time traffic report. I can't tell exactly how since I rarely succeeded in my limited testing.

I might be able to get used to the blind spots. I never seem to do that in just a week of renting the car. There are a lot of windows to prevent blind spots but they are there and I can't quite figure out what I would change to make them go away. Head room is good. I would like a little more elbow room but it is better than most other cars. It is a 4-door but I haven't tried to sit in the back. It is not as small on the inside as it looks - but I think the Ford Focus (at least the version I drove in the UK that was very similar to the first year they had in the US) does an even better job of being roomier than it looks.

So far, according to the fun touch screen consumption information, I have gone a little over 90 miles and averaged about 51 MPG. For a short while I was up at 53mpg average, then I went across town on the interstate and it dropped back down.


PS: Since I recently ranted about airline loyalty, let me also say that there is still some benefits to hotel loyalty - I *used* to get upgrades at the the chain I am at this week - but since I lost elite status, I am in a smaller, first floor room.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Airline Loyalty

I guess I am an airline snob. That, or I am one of the few "loyal" fliers left in the world. Well, I tried a new (for me) airline this week and I still haven't really decided if I like it or not. More on that experience in a later post. For now, I would just like to ramble on about my most and least favorite airline experiences as I wonder why I am loyal to any particular airline and think about how thankful I am that this week I am not flying American. [American Expects more Cancellations Apr 11]

I usually fly American. At one time they had a hub at my home airport which made it the most likely airline to have a direct flight at a reasonable price. If my company booked my travel, that was also the preferred airline for trips originating from my location. So I began to collect points. When American closed the hub they kept many direct flights - now mostly as regional jets up and down the east coast. And Midway arrived as a hub with frequent flyer partnership with American meaning more points (and more chance of elite status). Then Midway went to their own frequent flyer program and then they went bankrupt.

Now my choice of airlines is more of a comfort thing. I think that American still gives me the best chance of getting a direct flight or the least annoying connections. But mostly it is that I am used to American and American Eagle. I know the flight times for the cities I visit most often. I know which terminals (and in some cases gates) they are at for many airports. I know what types of planes and the best seats and when and where to ask for exit row seating. Even though I do not have elite status at the moment, I have maintained my Club membership (and found it to be worth almost every penny). And I like the adjustable headrests, reasonable sized seats, and legroom that is better than many other airlines.

Delta has been my second choice but mostly for that same comfort reason. I am not as familiar with Delta's schedules of direct flights. And the Atlanta airport isn't known for its ease of use even though I have been lucky with my flights through there. It is also one of the more comfortable places to get delayed (not stuck since getting out to a hotel and back in can be annoying) - if there is such a thing. There are a few features of their frequent flyer program that I like better than American and Delta was the first to implement some of the nicer boarding procedures but many of those have now been adopted by American and other airlines as well. At my home airport, Delta is in the busy terminal and American is in the less busy terminal that also already has the black diamond screening lines. I have also found the ground crew to be quicker (and friendlier) with American than Delta at home - but just the opposite in Boston (one of my most frequently visited cities).

For the most part I end up on regional jets and Delta Connection and American Eagle use similar planes. They have the same leg room (or lack of), same shoulder width of seats (some airlines actually use narrow seats). I generally like regional jets. I try to travel with all carryon baggage and with the smaller planes the rollerboard is gate checked. With the larger planes I have to get on board early enough to make sure there is room in the overhead - less of a problem since the limitations on liquids force people to check their large bottle of shampoo - but harder when you don't have frequent flyer priority boarding.

United and USAirways seem to give me the most problems with overbooking and delays. And I find the seating on Continental very cramped. A few other smaller carriers, specifically ones that advertise avoiding major airports and hubs, sound promising but I haven't tried most of them - and many filed for bankruptcy last week. I don't mind extra fees for extra bags or no free food and drinks or some other things that some of these newer airlines have tried to do to control costs. However, I am a big fan of reserved seating. It is not always easy for me to print a boarding pass from a hotel or client site and until recently it was also hard to do from home (no dsl available before).

Many friends and colleagues have suggested Southwest and the boarding issues were one of my biggest fears of trying them. More recently they changed their procedures [check out Boarding School] and added a "business" class which guarantees first group boarding. I am trying it this trip. I'll let you know how it goes.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Great finds at home

Sometime adventures and surprises can happen at home too.

One of the area Whole Foods now has made to order omelets in the mornings. I discovered this great find the second week of the offering (it has now been a couple of months).

All the more reason for me to get breakfast on the way to work at least once a week - that is, if I can leave a little bit earlier to have time to wait for it to be made.