Part 1: The Joys of International Travel
As kids, we were told that if we dug a hole too deep in the garden that we would fall into it and land in China. It was that far away. So, when I was given the opportunity to travel to China for Travel Channel\’s Passport to China project, I was excited, but still hesitant. In the back of my mind, I could hear myself say,\” and leave my 2-year-old motherless on the other side of the world?\” I would then rebut with, \”it\’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I have to take.\” That conversation with myself went on with other excuses — I would miss too much back at the office, the ticket would be too expensive, and what if I got sick there and got stuck in China. Then came the responses from relatives –\”You can\’t leave your daughter for that long!\”– and from friends –\”Wow, that\’s amazing.\” Constant mixed signals.
Reality hit when I made the reservation. I would fly out of D.C. to New York and jump on a connection to Beijing. From Beijing I would take a short flight to Chengdu where I would meet the rest of the crew. Done. There was no backing out now.
The production team booked the hotels. We were staying at the Shangri-La in Chengdu and the Ascott Beijing in Beijing. I knew both of the brands, so I was sure that I would be well taken care of once I got there. The problem became getting there.
Three weeks before my trip, I started researching the vaccinations that were suggested for traveling to and around China. All for safety: none were required. So, I held out my arms and handled about three shots in each arm … ouch. (TIP! Be sure to check the CDC\’s website as well as the US Department of State site — travel.state.gov — to find out which vaccines they recommend prior to travel and register your itinerary with the US embassy.)
As I pulled out of the driveway on September 19, I waved goodbye to my husband and 2-year-old at the front door. The baseball in my stomach became a swarm of butterflies. I was really about to head to the other side of the world. I blew her a kiss and, with a tear in my eye, was on my way.
Airports are really amazing places these days. Dulles International is going through some revamping, but they have some cool places to eat and hang out in while waiting in the terminals. I picked up a Lonely Planet guidebook at the Borders Bookstore and grabbed some sushi (pretty good for airport food!) in terminal B and waited for my short flight to NY.
The good news is that I eventually made it to NY, the bad news was that it was a day later and I missed my connection to Beijing. So I ended up making a brief pit-stop for the night in Manhattan.
There\’s something about waking up in New York … especially when the plan was to sleep on a 13-hour flight to Beijing. I was really glad to be in New York though. I\’m a New Yorker. I grew up on Long Island and lived and worked in Manhattan. While I was a bit disappointed to not be on my way to Beijing, I couldn\’t help feeling a bit relieved that I could spend one more night in the same time zone as my family.
Let me take you back to Dulles. After I stopped to grab food and the book, I walked over to the gate and boarded the plane. Grabbed my seat, pulled out the iPod and started preparing my clean journal for the trip ahead. (TIP! I always take a small notebook on every trip. I try to write something every day, and I usually find myself using it to record fun facts, authentic feelings, contact information for friends that I meet along the way, and even recipes.) That\’s where things started to turn. I quickly realized after 15 minutes of sitting on the plane at the gate that something was going on outside. The Captain came on the loud speaker and told us that there was a hydraulic leak. Now, I am not a nervous flyer (anymore), but that made me want to get the hell off the plane. I\’m not exactly sure what a \”hydraulic leak\” means, but I was not about to fly on a plane with one. So I was relieved when they told us that they would be de-boarding the plane. The people on the plane with me were not so happy. Apparently, this was a continuation of another flight coming out of Texas that had been delayed for hours on the ground there. They could not have cared less that the airline had 36 channels of DirecTV available at each set! They were furious and it reminds me to look up my travelers\’ rights before heading out for my next trip. I know that there is a bill in front of congress right now to regulate how passengers are accommodated if there are cancellations.
I started to get nervous when they announced that they were not replacing this plane for another; instead they were going to go ahead and service this one and delay our flight to NY by hours. They said that they were expecting a 3 p.m. departure from Dulles and that we would likely touch down in JFK by 4 p.m. My flight to Beijing was scheduled to leave at 4:30 p.m.
My first instinct was \”call your mother.\” My second was call the airline and figure it out. So I jumped online, grabbed the number for Air China (TIP! Keep the numbers to your airlines, car rental companies and hotels handy when traveling — you never know when a delay will cause a headache) and called the customer service line. I spoke to a very charming Chinese woman who was really helpful and very funny. Especially when I told her that I thought I could make that Beijing connection. I explained to her that I just had to grab my bag and run over to the International Arrivals building! And that I could make a run for it. She thought I was kidding and laughed as she started to reschedule my flight for the next day. (TIP! All passengers need to be checked-in and cleared one hour prior to departure for all International flights. So make sure you leave plenty of time to get to the airport!)
Once she had me booked on the flight for the next day out of NY, I started to think about what I would do now. Should I pack up and head back home and enjoy a pizza with my family tonight and try again tomorrow? Or, knowing that there was no way that I could get my bags back from Jet Blue (woops … I was trying to keep their name out of it) at this point, do I follow my suitcase with my Louis Vuitton bag and my fabulous new Prada flats to New York? Decision made. I\’m going to NY.
During the long wait at Dulles, I managed to secure a reasonable hotel rate on sidestep.com for a hotel called The Empire on 63rd and Bway. I never heard of it and I was a bit hesitant, but I really did not have much of a choice at this point. So I went with it and boarded my 11:45 a.m. flight to NY at 3 p.m. and arrived at 4:15. So much for trying to make a run for that Beijing flight!
When we arrived at JFK, we were told the number of the carousel to find our luggage. I stood there for over an hour, waiting for my bags and when they finally came, they told us that they were just \”too busy\” outside to get them out any sooner. Service with a smile.
I jumped into a cab outside of the terminal and headed into the city. (TIP! Taxis to and from Manhattan and JFK are a flat rate of $45 — so no worries about being taken the \”long way.\” Just make sure that you have cash on you — NYC taxis still do not take credit cards.) I love talking to cab drivers. This one was from India and had been living in NY for over 12 years. I knew he was from India by his last name: Singh. Singh is as common as Smith in the U.S. He told me about his move to the U.S. He now lives in the Bronx and finds it hard to find good Indian food there. Lots of Latino cuisine though and he told me about his favorite rice and beans dish. (TIP! If you have enough time in NY — try to get to the Bronx for some of the best Latino cuisine in the U.S. Just be sure to do your research — this is the boogie-down Bronx after all.)
When I arrived at The Empire Hotel, I was pleasantly surprised by the dÃƒÂ©cor — very NY boutique, nothing that I was expecting. The bell guy (not a boy, definitely a guy) addressed me as Mrs. Ansaldi, which I thought was strange and then realized that he was looking at my luggage tag, which I thought was smart.
I then tried to check in and when they could not find my reservation, I had enough. (TIP! Be sure to tell the check-in agent at the front desk how you booked your room if you do a last-minute reservation online. It will save you this headache. Remember, I had only booked hours before, so my reservation had not hit their system yet from Sidestep.) I handed the guy my AMEX and said in my clear Long Island accent, \”I\’m going to the bar for a drink. You come and get me when you figure this out.\” I then wandered over to a very cool bar in the middle of the lobby where I ordered a Cosmo with Chopin. Just what the doctor ordered after this travel day. What was even nicer was when the bartender told me that it was compliments of the front desk. Now I am liking this place.
I went up to my small NY room — totally expected — and found it to be really comfortable. Good air quality, colors were chocolate brown and creams with rich textures like leather-covered chairs and a thick blanket on the bed. The bathroom was small but designed to look like a sauna. The bathroom walls were light brown and made to look like warm woods. They also had planks of cedar on the shower floor to finish the spa look. Toiletries were nice, too. Note to self: pack those for China — ya never know! (TIP! Take home the toiletries! With all of my travels, I have a nice stock of travel-sized shampoos, conditioners, soaps, lotions, etc., that I put out when I have house guests.)
After a warm shower, I went to log in to my computer, so that I could check on my itinerary for my delayed trip to China. I called the front desk to ask for a pass code for the wireless service and they told me that the hotel offers complimentary internet service. WHAT? I promptly asked the woman on the line, \”Can you please tell me what city we are in?\” And she responded, \”New York.\” And I said, \”And you just said the word \’complimentary.\’\” And she said, \”yes, ma\’am.\” Can you even take it? I just spent around $400 for a room in NY that booked only hours before and they gave me wireless service for free. Genious. Even better, she told me that when I wake up, there is a complimentary breakfast in the lobby. Fabulous.
After I checked email and confirmed that everything was set for my trip, I decided to meet my cousin Melissa for dinner. She was heading out on a blind date, but wanted to grab a bite before she met the dude for drinks. We went to the Rink Bar which is the bar/restaurant that opens in the summer right on top of the ice rink at Rockefeller Center! Our table was right below the 12,500-pound bronze statue of Prometheus. (The statue was later covered in 24 karat gold leaf, so it is cool to sit below it and look up and see \”30 Rock\” right behind it.) Dinner was OK, not fabulous, and the service was questionable. You pay for the experience of dining on the rink. The company was great, though.
The next morning, I grabbed a Starbucks (did you really think I was the free breakfast type?) and packed up to make my way to the airport for my flight to Beijing. I got to JFK without a problem and checked in. The international terminal at JFK was great. I had access to the Air China business lounge, but I was not into chatting with random business dudes on their way to Asia. So I walked the terminal and found what was called The Express Spa. I was very early for my flight, so I had plenty of time to grab lunch over a mani-pedi. It was the perfect way to wait for a 13-hour flight to the other side of the world.
The flight started boarding on-time, and I was guided to my seat up on the top floor of the 747. (TIP! In my opinion, the \”bubble\” is the best area of a 747 when flying business class because it is super quiet and you get really personalized service.) I had a huge seat that converted to a bed, my own TV, champagne service, a really nice meal and two pillows and a blanket! Now, if I told you what we paid for this ticket, you would have said, \”That\’s all they gave you!!\” So, I\’ll leave it at that. (TIP! Whenever I fly, I always pack a large pashmina in my carry-on. It can be folded and used as a pillow, pulled out and becomes a comfy blanket and doubles as a floatation device. Kidding! It can be used as a scarf or a shawl on your trip!)
The trip was easy; I ate dinner and then fell asleep. When I woke up, I figured that we had about five more hours until landing, and I was shocked to learn that we would be landing in an hour and a half! Buckle your seat belt and stow your tray table, because we are about to come in for a landing in Beijing.