It’s entirely possible that Burlington (Vermont) International is my all-time favorite airport. BTV, as it’s called in airport jargon, was the final destination on our outbound flight from San Francisco (SFO) and the start of our vacation.
What exactly defines the start of a vacation? There are as many opinions on that as as there are economy seats on an airliner – and that’s a hell of a lot. For some it’s the final shutdown of the work computer after having dashed off the “out of office” notification (My standard boilerplate always included the warning that while on vacation I would not have access to phone or internet service. On rate occasions that was true. Most of the time it was just another way of saying, “Get away, you bother me.”) For me, that last day of work was so stressful that I couldn’t even think about it being the start of vacation. At the end of it all I just wanted a couple of martinis to take the edge off. Retirement has permanently removed the last workday before vacation mayhem.
Some think of locking the front door and heading out to be the start of a vacation. That’s not me either. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and the traffic here is no holiday. So if it’s a road trip I need to be well clear of the urban crush. That’s when I open up the throttle (such as it is on a Honda) and turn on some driving music.
If there’s airline travel involved, well that’s a horse of a different color. That vacation doesn’t start until I’ve successfully retrieved my luggage (after deplaning and at the correct airport) and negotiated the rental car out of the airport. Anything before that is a taxing, blood pressure bursting, wearisome crap shoot all done on a paltry ration of complimentary peanuts and soft drinks. That is of course unless you’re one of the swells who can afford first class.
BTV became my favorite because it’s small, uncrowded and unpretentious yet with an understated modern flair. It doesn’t offer much in the way of food and shopping options but if I’m looking for food and shopping then I’ll drive the two hours or so down the Pacific Coast to Carmel by the Sea.
An airport is only a way station that I just want to get in and get out of. So all you Vermonters don’t take my description of BTV as a slight. We landed, got off the plane, hit the clean bathrooms, found our bags already off the carousel at baggage claim, checked out our rental car and were on our way. What else could anyone possibly want?
There was no people mover, no shuttle between terminals, no odyssey from the gate to baggage claim and no snaking through a crush of people most of whom are as confused and lost as you.
A friend of mine has described the Reno, Nevada airport as a dump. Maybe because it’s small? Not many facilities? He never elaborated but I know one thing, sight unseen I’ll take the little bare bones Reno Airport over a vast metropolis of an airport every day of the week. I don’t need a five dollar stick of gum or a ten dollar plastic wrapped petrified sandwich from the shops. I don’t care if I have to walk out on the tarmac and climb a ladder to the plane. If it’s compact and easy to maneuver around, its my kind off airport,
My airport stress starts the night before the flight. I don’t get a wink of sleep because I’m worried that if I do sleep I’ll oversleep and miss my flight. Set an alarm you say? I’ve done that and I just lay awake waiting for it to go off. So all night long and into the wee hours I fret about getting to the airport on time. We have a bridge and the city of San Francisco between our home and the airport. An accident at either of those places can mean gridlock. And then there’s all the stress that comes once you’ve arrived at the airport and you see people in lines that just ooze with rancor, impatience and frustration.
This year departure day started early with a 5:45 AM take off and a suggested check-in of 4:15. I arranged for a 3:30 AM pickup by Lyft and that’s when our flight started. I say this because had the driver gone a few MPH faster we might have actually taken flight. It was one of those rare occasions when I didn’t mind the unsafe speed because I just wanted to get to the airport and get that irritation behind me. All during the drive I kept peeking at the driver’s GPS for the ETA at SFO (Where would we be without acronyms?).
This was my first experience with a rideshare and it took me a while to get the hang of it. In the process of reserving a ride a couple days in advance I managed to accidentally summon three or four immediate rides to the airport. The app was tracking a convoy of cars dispatched for a ride I didn’t need. Finally I got a driver to contact Lyft HQ and cancel the inbound squadron.
When we did get a ride I accidently double tipped the guy. That’s fine I guess. He’s probably going to need the extra scratch to pay off the speeding ticket that looms in his future.
Cora and I are used to Southwest Airlines and it’s policy of no fees for two checked bags so I was a bit stunned when American dinged us 70 dollars for our two bags. When the American Airlines agent expressed some amusement over my reaction I responded in dry fashion that we were accustomed to flying their competitor that doesn’t charge for checked bags.
American, like most airlines, fills the plane from front to back rather than the more logical back to front that would avoid squeezing past people trying to fit a 20 inch square bag into 15 inches of overhead space. With your seat assignment you’re given a group number from one to seven. The first two or three groups are for first class passengers and they, of course, board first because who would pay all that money to stand around with the unwashed masses when you can be seated in a pleasant recline, sipping inferior bubbly and watching the cattle go by. The remaining groups are called in numerical order with the last group, number seven not only sitting in the more chilly back of the plane but also being the group that’s screwed out of overhead space.
I purchased my tickets months in advance and we were lucky enough to be in group 3 in the front of the economy section. That’s a choice group mainly because you can easily find overhead space for your carry-on.
I recall when overhead space was not an issue. That’s no longer the case as airlines have minimized both seat size and legroom turning the plane into a confined pen without increasing the amount of overhead space. This means that the passengers in the two or three last groups are out of luck when it comes to overhead space. As a result they’re given the Hobson’s choice of checking the carry-on, leaving the carry-on behind or simply not flying.
As one might expect, this has created a class of airborne outlaws. Since the attendant at the gate doesn’t seem to check the group number while scanning the boarding passes some passengers simply jump the line. I know that because when our group three boarded our flight there were already a number of passengers sitting comfortably in the very back of the plane, carry-on bags neatly stowed.
I know these people; not personally mind you, but I know them. They’re the same people who cut you off and take the parking spot that you’ve waited and signalled for. They’re the ones who feel they’re important enough to drive on the shoulder when traffic is gridlocked. This entitled behavior has been created by the greed of the airlines for filling planes to the brim with seats and not allowing enough space for carry-on bags.
Travel tip? Book early and choose your seat as soon as you are able.
These days it’s almost a fantasy to think that you’ll get a non-stop flight and in our case we had a layover at Philadelphia. Since our flight included the standard menu of complimentary peanuts and soft drinks we decided to get lunch during the layover. My first highlight of the trip would be at the Philadelphia airport and it was going to be a genuine Philly cheesesteak.
I did some research and found that Geno’s has a restaurant in the airport. I was familiar with Geno’s through all the food and travel shows on the Travel Channel and Food Network (before Food Network became the stupid game show network).
We got off the plane, made the trek between terminals and found not just A food court, but THE food court; the one that held the motherload – Geno’s. I jumped in the long line at Geno’s and as I inched through the queue I drooled in expectation as I watched line cooks flip onions, peppers and strips of beef on a huge flattop grill and then pile all that grilled delight on fluffy rolls. A Philly cheesesteak in Philly. It was the stuff of bucket lists; like sipping a julep at the Kentucky Derby, watching Formula One from a yacht at Monte Carlo or having strawberries and cream at Wimbledon.
After I placed my order I followed the line around the counter, watching for a glimpse of my very own Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwich. It was a cavalcade of little meat and cheese treasures but I pined to see the birth of my own sandwich. When I got to the end of the line, the counter guy handed me a neatly wrapped little package and I carried it reverently to a table. Cora was already working on a big bowl (more like a vat) of ramen noodles. “Ha,” I thought, “you don’t get noodles in Philly, you get a cheesesteak.” I opened up the wrap and revealed to Cora that glorious creation as if I was rubbing her nose in that ramen.
I took a bite of my sandwich anticipating rapture. A few chews. More chews. Meh. What the hell is this? I flipped the lid on the sandwich and found that there was hardly any cheese. Cheese was almost like an afterthought. It’s a damn CHEESEsteak. Where the hell’s the cheese? And the meat? I get the same at the supermarket. I thought to myself that I can make a better cheesesteak than this. I was devastated. This was like finding out that Santa Claus doesn’t exist or that the Derby julep is made with cheap ass Ten High bourbon instead of Woodford.
But wait, I have a theory! It was an airport cheesesteak. If you want the real deal you have to go to Geno’s over on 9th street, you know, downtown. And maybe that’s where the true holy grail of cheesesteaks resides. Maybe on 9th you get more cheese and the meat has more taste, more umph to it. Maybe you need that gritty downtown version.
I’ve run into that sort of thing before and it’s a disappointment. The best pizza that I’ve ever had, hands down, comes from Tony’s Pizza in San Francisco’s North Beach. Yet at a satellite location at one of the Indian casinos in the North Bay the pizza is just a cheap knockoff, only slightly better than a frozen pie. And more inglorious than the pizza is the fact that they offer a side of ranch dressing. Ranch dressing with pizza? Who does that?
The question remains though, why would you serve an inferior product at a satellite location? Geno’s airport location represents the very first impression that visitors get of his product and if it’s a low-rent version of what you can get at the mothership then how is that good business?
Why would I bother ever going to the downtown location when the sandwich I had at the airport was bereft of the cheese portion and the steak portion was insipid at best? Only the roll was worth a damn and I can still get better bread at a boulangerie. If the 9th Street version is as plain as the airport version then I have to say that I’m just plain disappointed. I’ve had a better sandwich at a cheesesteak shop at our local Bay Area stripmall.
Travel tip? Don’t get your hopes up for the airport version of a restaurant classic.
But for that bitter pill of a cheesesteak our flights to Burlington were uneventful.
Since our arrival was late in the day and our first full day would be a drive north to the Canadian border and Montreal we stayed at a motel about a mile from the airport. After check- in I looked through some travel brochures. We put our feet up for a while, tired, sweaty and mentally spent. There was no going out for dinner. We walked to a local grocer where we bought some pre-packaged supermarket salads for dinner.
The next morning we got up early for the complimentary motel breakfast. The morning spread featured some yellow disks that once microwaved are allegedly transmogrified into omelets. After giving the disks a quick inspection I chose a hard boiled egg and some yogurt.
Travel tip? Beware the yellow disks.
In the end we didn’t see much of Vermont. Our original plan was to spend 5 days in Vermont to close out the trip and then head back home from BTV. When Cora unexpectedly got sick we were forced to fly out early from Portland, Maine, a misadventure described in a previous post, How I Spent My Vacation – Or a Trip to a Tire Fire. What we saw of Vermont was a lush, beautiful, verdant green and some occasional glimpses of Lake Champlain as we drove north to Montreal, Canada.