Spring Break in North Carolina (Trip Report)

American, Southwest, Trip Reports

Spring Break! Ok, so that doesn’t quite mean the same thing as it used to. This year, we took the kids to North Carolina to see the in-laws. Tickets were expensive so we went with a combo of miles and money on this one. We had great experiences in both directions.

On the way out, we flew American on a standard award. It was 20,000 miles each way which really isn’t bad. Normally that even includes Main Cabin Extra, but not on this old US Airways A321. The few seats they have are exit rows and we can’t do that with the kids. So we picked preferred seats in the mini-cabin at the front of coach.

I checked us in the day before and we had our boarding passes ready. The plan was to leave home 2 hours before departure but we were late. We finally left about 1.5 hours before and hoped for the best.

At the airport, we were flying out of Terminal 5, which still seems weird to me since it has been Delta for so long. We found a kiosk and printed our bag tags. Man, those printers are really slow. After dropping the bags we headed to a fairly lengthy Pre Check line that took about 10 minutes to clear. We were through easily and headed to the dreaded gate 53B. This gate sucks because there is nowhere near enough seating thanks to the restaurants taking up space. It is particularly bad with a big A321. We had to go to a different gate to wait it out.

We wandered back around boarding time and boarding was a mess. There was just one big line with them constantly calling subsequent boarding groups. Everyone was mixed in and there was a fair bit of confusion. The jet bridge was, of course, backed up. You can see why people are tense and unhappy before they even get on the airplane.

April 15, 2017
American 724 Lv Los Angeles 835a Arr Charlotte 441p
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 53B, Runway 25R, Depart 13m Late
Charlotte (CLT): Gate B16, Runway 18R, Arrive On Time
N179UW, Airbus A321-211, Ugly Flag Tail, ~99% Full
Seat 7B, Coach
Flight Time 4h24m

Once onboard, we sat down in the newly-recovered A321 seats. They looked nice but they weren’t particularly comfortable with a hard bar in the back of the bottom cushion on my seat.

The captain said we’d depart on time and other than some clear air turbulence over Oklahoma it would be a nice day to fly. But first we had to navigate LAX. The alley was congested and we couldn’t push until we were about 15 minutes late because of, as the captain made clear to point it, Delta airplanes.

We took off and oh my, he wasn’t kidding. It was smooth as silk for the first couple hours. Once again, I got lucky with a fantastic crew. They were calm, friendly, and apparently good at sales because I had some scotch and the kids had the continental breakfast with bagels, a granola bar, and a banana.

We pulled the iPads out and immediately started streaming American’s free movies for the kids. They were completely and totally content the whole way to Charlotte.

Incredibly, I spent the first nearly two hours reading the in-flight magazine and doing the crossword. It was a glorious break from being connected. Once that was done, I did log on, because T-Mobile gives you one free hour on every flight. Then I shut down and read a magazine.

The expected bumps did appear over Arkansas but it wasn’t much. Soon enough we were descending, and my son kept trying to close the window shade as he does on every flight. Where have I gone wrong? We landed and had a relatively quick taxi to our gate.

Our connection was just about as far as you can get from our arrival gate B16, but we had plenty of time. We trekked into the main hall, which was crowded, and then kept walking toward E. In the corridor, we found some rocking chairs, so we used that as a base of operations. I ran off to find food (just had a salad) and when I returned, my wife went to get a neck massage. By the time she was done, I realized we needed to get moving.

Gate E31 is really, really far down there, especially with kids. We got to the gate just as they were doing a “courtesy page” to get us and a few others on the already-boarded airplane. It was still about 20 minutes before departure.

April 15, 2017
American Eagle 5362 Lv Charlotte 615p Arr Wilmington 713p
Charlotte (CLT): Gate E31, Runway 18L, Depart 3m Early
Wilmington (ILM): Gate 6, Runway 24, Arrive 11m Early
N586NN, Bombardier CRJ-900, Ugly Flag Tail, ~90% Full
Seat 12C, Coach
Flight Time 33m

There’s a lot of ramp construction out there so we had to walk a fair bit to get to our airplane, and I wasn’t complaining. We walked up the stairs on to our relatively new CRJ-900. The airplane looked really nice and the updated cabin sidewalls made for a more pleasant feel compared to the Mesa aircraft.

Someone was in one of our seats, and the flight attendant came up to ask if we’d mind doing 4 across instead of 2/2 behind. Apparently she had to move someone out of the exit row who didn’t speak English. Of course, we didn’t care.

I pulled up our bags on the American website to see the real-time tracking confirm they had been loaded on this flight. I love that.

The pilot came on and said we’d be departing soon, we’d have a short taxi, and the weather in Wilmington was the same as in Charlotte. Short and to the point.

Our taxi was a bit longer than he thought, but no matter. We were airborne and made it up to 17,000 feet quickly before leveling off for the short cruise. The flight attendants announced they wouldn’t do a service on the flight but if we needed something we could let them know. I looked up front and saw both of the flight attendants serving the First Class passengers quickly. I was thinking about flagging down a Biscoff for the kids, but I didn’t bother.

Just as soon as we were up, we started back down again. It really was a nice late afternoon when we touched down on the runway. Wilmington is tiny, yet somehow bags didn’t start rolling until about 20 minutes after we landed. Fortunately there was a putting green that kept the kids highly-entertained.

The week, as always, went by quickly. Well except for that one day when 4 of the 6 of us came down with the stomach flu. That’s right… the tour de sick continues! But by the time we were ready to fly home, we had all recovered. When we looked at return flights, they were really pricey and I didn’t have enough miles for all of us on American. Then, I stumbled on to something.

Southwest has been scrapping to add flights at Long Beach, so on weekends when it can snag an extra unused slot, it flies to Denver. We could fly Southwest Raleigh/Durham-Denver-Long Beach and we could do it for $194.94 each with my wife on the companion pass for next to nothing. Bingo.

I checked us in 24 hours prior and got passes in the low Bs for the first flight and high As for the second. We returned the car and took the shuttle over to Southwest’s Terminal 1. That terminal looks old… and it was really empty. We had our bags tagged and headed upstairs to the security line. There wasn’t a line, and we walked right through.

The concourse didn’t look any busier, but our gate did have a bunch of people sitting and waiting. Our airplane pulled up from Orlando and they turned the airplane around quickly. Since we had the kids, we were able to do family boarding and hopped on right after the A group.

April 22, 2017
Southwest 4376 Lv Raleigh/Durham 925a Arr Denver 1115a
Raleigh/Durham (RDU): Gate A7, Runway 5/25LR, Depart On Time
Denver (DEN): Gate C43, Runway 35R, Arrive 17m Early
N755SA, Boeing 737-7H4, Hot Dog on a Stick colors, ~90% Full
Seat 15B, Coach
Flight Time 3h22m

We found seats behind the exit where we could get window/middle together in two consecutive rows. This airplane was delivered in the original colors way back in 1999. I’m guessing it must have been one of the earliest to get the Evolve seats, because these felt like the padding was gone. It was instantly uncomfortable.

We had a cheery crew with the guy on the horn cracking jokes along the way. Somehow he pulled it off on this morning flight without being annoying.

The captain came on to tell us that he hoped for a smooth ride but since we’d be flying around storms, we’d probably get some bumps. I knew what that meant.

Even before we pushed back, the guy in the aisle sitting next to me starting talking to me. That didn’t stop the entire flight. At first, I was pretty annoyed. I kept having to interrupt him to talk to my son, but he would just pick it right back up.

Once in the air, we shot up like a rocket to 38,000 feet, well above the storms we’d be flying over. But it wasn’t long before it started getting bumpy. At first, it was just the seatbelt sign on. The crew came through to get drink orders, and I asked for a Wild Turkey. Yeah, it was early, but it would help take the edge off.

Then the bumps started getting stronger and the captain told the flight attendants to sit down. Ours actually ignored the order for a few seconds to keep serving the last of the drinks on his tray… which ended in the row in front of ours. Doh.

It kept bouncing for awhile, and at one point, we started going on a smooth air fishing expedition. We came down a little but it was no better. Then the captain came on saying we were going to check out 28,000 feet because it was supposed to be better down there. We stayed there awhile until we cleared the weather and then went back up to 38,000 feet. Then I got my drink.

Instantly, the guy next to me became more interesting. (Yep, it was the Wild Turkey talking.) So I more willingly chatted with him while my son stayed glued to his iPad, munching on Wheat Thins and honey-roasted peanuts (all hail the honey-roasted peanut).

But soon, the euphoria of my drink started to wear off, and I really just wanted the flight to end. Amazingly, by then, we were starting our descent.

Denver apparently had snow that morning. It was cloudy and cold, but it had stopped by the time we arrived through the low cloud layer. We were at the gate early and we hopped off to kill our 2 hour layover.

We had some lunch at Timberline right there on the C concourse. Then we bought my daughter new headphones since hers broke. Lastly, I got myself a shoeshine. As I finished, I could see people lining up at the gate, so we walked over, took our boarding positions, and walked on.

April 22, 2017
Southwest 3128 Lv Denver 115p Arr Long Beach 235p
Denver (DEN): Gate C40, Runway 25, Depart 6m Early
Long Beach (LGB): Gate 2, Runway 30, Arrive 11m Early
N7884G, Boeing 737-76N, Hot Dog on a Stick colors, ~95% Full
Seat 9E, Coach
Flight Time 1h59m

This airplane was one of those that Southwest acquired on the second-hand market. This bad boy flew for Kenya Airways until a couple years ago, and Southwest put it into service toward the end of last year. Because of that, this airplane had the new Heart Interior with the heart on the bulkhead. While the seats had a nicer, solid blue covering to match the new ones coming on 737-800s, I believe these were just the old seats with new covers. They seemed really hard and in need of breaking in, so they were at the other end of the spectrum from the seats on the first flight.

This crew was more subtle, but there were a few jokes thrown in. We taxied out and played runway roulette. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but we took off on runway 25. That has got to be the best runway if you’re heading west. We bounced a little until we got above the now-scattered cloud layer and after that we had spectacular views of the snow-covered Rockies. It only got better.

There were incredible views as we followed the Colorado River through Utah and Arizona. The ride was smooth as silk, and now with my daughter next to me enjoying a bounty of snacks, I actually nodded off for maybe half an hour. I can’t sleep on airplanes, but I was just so exhausted.

I woke up just as we were beginning our descent. It was a hot and hazy day in the LA Basin, but we still had some nice views as we descended into Long Beach. After the long day we had, I was just so excited to be in Long Beach and not at LAX.

After a quick stop to exercise (yes, that’s a bike desk where your peddling generates power to charge your device), I was reminded, that Southwest is stressing the infrastructure at LGB. JetBlue has the baggage claim on one side, but Southwest shares a single, small belt with Delta and American on the other. It generally works fine, but Southwest has a lot more checked bags so it was squeezed.

Then one of our bags had a zipper ripped off, so I went to the ticket counter to report it. Southwest needs a lot more counter space. There was a line several people deep at the two narrow positions. Once I got up to the front, the agent said he could give me another bag to replace it. Apparently they keep bags even at this small station to hand out in situations like these. But it wouldn’t be the same bag (ours was not a regular roller or anything like that), and I would have to empty my current bag and give it to them right there. The agent looked at me as I hesitated and said “or I could give you a $50 LUV voucher.” Good enough. He printed it out and we headed home.

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41 comments on “Spring Break in North Carolina (Trip Report)

  1. Brett,

    Great report and love it when you come east to NC. Your spring break reminded me of ours a week prior from RDU getting creative to keep costs low for 4.

    Flew SWA from RDU-DEN with 3 of us on paid tickets (~$139 each) and had enough points for one way the wife used.

    Then went AA DEN-DFW-MLU (Mom lives in Monroe) and found 3 20k award tickets and one paid.

    Finally, used DL miles for all 4 of us to return MLU-ATL-RDU. I felt like I worked for Cranky Concierge planning this thing.

    Again, it was fun reading your story and glad you got to see Terminal 1 in its “quiet” remodeled state. Many memories flying out of and working in at AirTran.

  2. Brett,

    How can you tell the age of the plane and who flew it previously? I know you can look on the door jam as you enter to see the date of manufacture, but the other history?


    1. Bob – Others have chimed in, but I usually just Google the tail number.
      I’ll usually end up clicking on the airfleets.net link but there are others as well.

  3. Interesting that you describe RDU Terminal 1 as looking old. The outer shell of the building is about all the remains after the renovation completed just a few years ago. Granted, i haven’t actually flown on WN out of RDU since completion of the renovation, but it’s definitely not an old terminal.

    1. LMS – I’m just saying that in comparison to the other terminal which has a much newer look with more glass, higher ceilings, etc.

      1. Oh for sure. Terminal 2 definitely has a more modern look as it was built from the ground up as a replacement for the former AA and then Midway Hub. Compared to what Terminal 1 used to look like the current version is an incredible improvement.

  4. For a weekly flight a ~95% load factor on DEN-LGB seems really good. I’m guessing WN is getting traction in Long Beach

  5. Are LUV vouchers still paper forms where you have to go to the airport to redeem, or can you redeem them online or over the phone?

  6. The putting green at the airport is a great idea. Cheap to put in and a great way for kids and adults to kill a few minutes.

    I always like to see airports get creative with amenities and small touches, especially when they become a signature of the airport. The rocking chairs around CLT are another good example.

  7. DEN RWY 25 take-off’s aren’t that odd. What’s odder is a LGB landing on 12, which I saw LGB was doing mid-Sunday, when LAX was in normal flow.

    1. phllax – I have no clue about runway 25, but it’s the first time I’ve done it. As for runway 12, yes, it’s usually just went the offshore winds kick up that they turn it around. It does happen but it’s so weird. I’m used to hearing airplanes take off from my house and don’t even hear it most of the time, but when they land, it sounds completely different. It is pretty rare. I’ve taken off on 12 once, but I’ve never landed on.

  8. Hi Brett, Thoroughly enjoyed traveling along with you on your family’s Spring Vacation.
    Thank you, Leslie Pernas-Giz

  9. Cranky, could the wait for bags at Wilmington be due to having a minimally manned ground crew? I could imagine that the bags for the flight to CLT were loaded before your bags were trucked to the belt. Years ago I waited 25 minutes for my bags in Helena, MT because Horizon bedded down the F.28 for the night before taking the bags to the terminal.

    1. Darkwater – I have no clue but certainly could have been. It’s a tiny airport but I believe our flight and the Philly flight came in at the same time so that could have been an issue.

  10. Is it standard for airlines to offer to replace a damaged suitcase?
    I can see the need if a bag gets catastrophically damaged and won’t hold together for another leg, but for small damage at the destination?

    1. Brendan – I don’t actually know. I thought it was strange since I can’t imagine a lot of people wanting to do that kind of bag swap. I guess if you have a generic black roller and they have something similar, it might work. But how many bags can they just keep on hand at a small station like Long Beach just in case? Seemed weird.

    2. I’ve had it happen. A tear in the suitcase’s shell, broken plastic, or a busted/ripped zipper will do it, but I would guess that other damage is considered closer to normal wear and tear, as “bags are designed to protect their contents” (as the signs at the luggage claim remind everyone).

      I’m actually curious as to how the airlines buy the bags that they hand out as replacements… I would think that they would have some contracts for decent but not fancy generic suitcases made in China, but who knows.

    3. My current main roll aboard suitcase is one that Hawaiian Airlines Hilo station gave me something like 15 years ago after my previous suitcase came off the belt pretty badly damaged.

    4. Yes it is very common. Every station I’ve worked at has always kept a decent supply of replacement bags on hand. Usually a few low-end, mid-range, and upper-end of the common sizes. Airlines order the replacement stock incredibly cheap… and any way they can avoid additional paperwork is good for all involved.

  11. Great write-up; nobody does it better!

    Reading what you said, seeing your pictures, flights on a regional 90% full, etc., is there any reason, any enjoyable reason for flying these days, except to look out the window and marvel what’s out there.

    Of course, I could say the same about DRIVING anywhere these days, too! Oh well…!

    1. jaybru – I thought the flights were perfectly enjoyable for the most part.
      Good crews, friendly people, tasty scotch, nice entertainment options (on American). I had little to complain about.

  12. Thanks for taking us on your Spring Break flights. Did you really fly there without your return flight plans in place? Very brave, especially with two young kids!

    1. No, we had the return flights booked before we left. I found that option a couple months earlier. Sorry I didn’t make that clear. It just wasn’t an obvious option when I was looking through.

  13. I’ve got a daughter on the way and if she as much as touches the window shade I will wonder where I’ve gone wrong as well.

  14. Great idea solving the ripped bag problem on the spot! So much to like about Southwest’s way of doing business!

  15. Love the story. Don’t forget about the great shoeshines in CLT. They do an amazing job. I always stop buy when I have time. And how about that Carolina BBQ? I miss it!!

  16. When you were in CLT did AA have a lot of aircraft congestion on the ground? I did a connection there last week that was so infuriating I wrote to AA to complain. They literally had AA metal parked all over the place and were towing planes out to make room at a gate for us for our “on time” arrival. By the time I finally got off the near back of an A321 my 60 min connection was closer to 20 minutes. Not to mention the length of run between terminals in an airport that is beyond design capacity.

    By comparison I did a 30 minute turn at SLC last night. Similarly dated airport but DL didn’t have near the congestion issue leaving us waiting for a gate. My experience may have been unusual but CLT was LAX or ORD bad and I’m not afraid to put airports on my do-not-connect list, cough cough ORD, LGA.

  17. Cranky, Great stuff as always. Funny how Wild Turkey has a way of making the guy next to us a little more interesting on a flight, isn’t it?

  18. Great post as always, Mr. Cranky. Funny how a little Wild Turkey can make that guy sitting next to us seem a little more interesting, isn’t it?

    1. Juliana – Makes me feel like I’m getting a little bit of Herb Kelleher’s personality in me on every flight…

  19. One thing I’ve always wondered: Your description of the tail color scheme. Are those your descriptions (hot dog on a stick) or official livery names?

    1. Heidi – They’re my own. I’m not sure if Southwest has an official name for this new livery. Though the old one was called Canyon Blue by the airline.

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