Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Emerald Shores of Ireland - Part 1

Welcome to our new serial. Last September I took a trip to Ireland, over the next few weeks, tune in as the journal of the trip is released a few pages at a time, just like serials in old time magazines used to be.

With that, here is Part 1 of "The Emerald Shores of Ireland"

The Emerland Shores of Ireland
A Trip Journal by David Bowers
September 2, 2008 to September 11, 2008


In March of 2008, one of my friends, Bob Hilvers, asked me if I had any interest in going with him to Ireland. I took a look at the trip brochure, and it didn't take me long to decide I wanted to go. I figure one should take these opportunities when they come knocking on your door, you never know when you might get another chance. So, after doing some more mundane things like clearing the time off of work, I announced I would go with him. One registration form and a deposit payment later, I was enrolled in the trip.

The trip itself was a tour organized by Pentecost Tours out of Batesville, Indiana, and was sponsored by St. Rose Catholic Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, led by Fr. Barry. I was immediately impressed with Pentecost Tours efficiency when it seemed like my enrollment packet arrived in the mail just 2 days later. It was a thick packet with a brochure full of travel tips and useful information for international travel, a brochure on travel insurance, a welcome letter, a printout detailing how my prepaid gratuities would be applied, a more detailed information request form, and statement of account. The statement of account listed the full price of the trip, plus the trip insurance (you could have that deducted by filling out the included insurance waiver, but I wouldn't recommend it), it also included an entry for the estimated airline fees and taxes (the base fare was included in the main tour price but not the taxes), as well as an entry for the prepaid tips. In fairness, they did warn you about each of these items in the original trip brochure.

I started to fill out the detailed information form which asked for a lot of information out of your passport, its mostly common information but they wanted it "exactly as it appears on your passport" I retrieve my passport, and I get as far as "Passport expiration date", and note my passport expires in June of 2008. That isn't going to help me in September, is it? As my boss says, "Before you can do anything, you have to do something else first" Well, I can go ahead and send in the premium for the trip insurance as you get more favorable terms if you pay for the insurance within 14 days of enrollment, and 2 days later I have an updated invoice.

I then research renewing my passport, I was happy to learn you can renew by mail rather than having to appear in front of a passport application officer. So a trip to Walgreen's to have my updated passport photos taken, an application to fill out, a check for a service fee to write, and then get a padded mailer to put all that plus my old passport into. I mailed all that off and proceeded to wait, worried as I had heard there was a rush on the passport office now that a passport will be required for travel to Canada. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised when just about a week later, I received my new passport in the mail. A couple days later I received my old passport back in the mail, with a big "Cancelled" stamp on the page adjacent to the photo page and holes punched through the OCR code. With that I could fill out and return the passport information form.

From there, it was mostly just a wait until September. I made sure my voltage adapter/converter kit was good to go, bought some travel guides and did some general research on the places we would be visiting. In June I paid the balance of the trip cost, and thought I was set. In August, I received a letter from Pentecost explaining that the airline was tacking on a fuel surcharge, the cost of which was being passed on to me. The other thing is they added an adjustment to allow for the change in the exchange from the US Dollar to the Euro. When the trip was planned and the cost determined the exchange was 1.37 dollars to the Euro, and now its 1.57 dollars to the Euro. The letter went into a long winded apology about how they must pay for all land based services in Ireland in Euros, and since the conversion rate changed that drastically, they are again passing the added cost on to us. I mean we are talking about a combined surprise hidden charge of over $300. I wasn't too happy about it, but what are you going to do now? Just need to exchange some of my own dollars to Euro now, and get packed. I even got some new luggage for the trip.

In July, Fr. Barry hosted a welcome reception at St. Rose church which was both a mixer to get to know the other people on the tour group, as well as a chance for him to go over the itinerary in detail, with the help of a large map of Ireland, and also to go over things like weather and his own international travel tips. Fr. Barry commented that when he contacted Pentecost Tours about this trip that they responded they would put it together but others who have tried haven't gotten enough interest. Well, we have 56 people worth of 'no-interest".

Two weeks before the trip, the trip packets arrived in the mail. These included a travel portfolio which contained our e-tickets, name tags, luggage tags, hotel list, a nice full color map of Ireland with our trip route outlined on it along with a legend giving the mileage between each site, a roster of tour participants, and a cover letter explaining it all. Now, all I have to do is pack and present myself at the airport.

Day 1: September 2, 2008

I awoke around 9AM and got dressed in the clothes I had laid out the night before. There was time for some final checking and double checking to make sure I had everything I needed. We left a bit earlier than I expected, I mean I thought my Mom was paranoid about getting to the airport early, my uncle is even worse. We did stop to gas up the car, then we went over to pick up Bob. As we were picking up Bob I realized I forgot my jacket (hey its like 95 outside here!), but I knew I would surely need that given the forecast in Ireland. A short quick trip back home to pick up my jacket, and then we were off to the airport.

We were advised to be at the airport 3 hours early for an international flight, so with a flight time of 3:30, we arrived at the airport right around noon. We entered the terminal building where I was confused when I saw a sign that said "Continental Airlines ->" then " <- All International Check In". Well, I fall into both categories, and my first segment is domestic to Newark. Seeing nobody at the Continental desk right in front of me, I decide to start there. I walk up to the kiosk and following the instructions on the kiosk I scan the OCR code on my passport to check in for international travel. That did it, and we were able to check in on the self service kiosk. I found out all of us had the same confirmation number so when we checked in, we could see that two others in the tour had already checked in, so we weren't the first to arrive. The kiosk printed out boarding passes, and a ticket agent checked our luggage all the way through to Shannon, Ireland. I also asked about earning Delta Skymiles (both airlines are Sky Team Alliance members), and found out I could, the agent scanned my Delta miles card and that information was added to my reservation. I noted our boarding passes were flagged at the top "INTL - VERIFY US PASSPORT"

So after Bob and I were checked in, we turn around and headed into the check in area where there were several more people with the distinctive light green tour name tags. We both decided we would feel a lot better once we were past the TSA checkpoint. Heading to the checkpoint I get a reminder of the legacy of 9/11. You see, when this terminal was built, it was really efficient, you pulled up out front for the doors for your airline, walked right in to the check in desks for your airline, checked in, and then walked to the center of the terminal and right at the center lined up perfectly with the check in desks was a double down escalator that went all the way to the basement bypassing the first floor (which is for arrivals). The bottom of the escalator was right at the security checkpoint. Next to those escalators are the escalators for arrivals to go up from the basement to the first floor, where you come out in the middle of the baggage claim area.

Well, now that security is more rigorous and takes longer, that arrangement no longer works, so now they direct you to the back escalators which means when you get to the basement you have a long hallway to the security checkpoint, which has since been mostly filled up with a queue maze for when the line backs up. Today, that would not be the case as there was no line. So we walked through a giant empty queue maze right up to the entrance to the security checkpoint. Some time this year they have added more permanent counters for the people that check your ID and boarding pass. Here is where I decided to use my passport as ID, I mean it says "I am either going to or coming from a foreign country, this is my special day" ID checked with UV light, and boarding pass checked and marked by the security person we were admitted past that counter. Here is where Cincinnati is experimenting with a new system where you self-declare your ability to clear security, using three different routes marked with ski slope type signage. The "Beginner" trail is for those who know they will need extra time or are unfamiliar with the process, the "Intermediate" trail is for most of us, and the "Expert" trail is for those with no carry on bags, or feel particularly adept at being able to clear with no hesitation. When this was introduced they said the idea was to help prevent cases where the person who flies twice a week with no carry on bags being stuck in line behind the proverbial family of eight who is taking their first airplane trip ever and are not even close to being ready to clear security. This didn't matter today as we happened to hit the checkpoint when it was dead. They just sent us down a lane and we walked right up to an inspector. I had already emptied my pockets and removed my jewelry and placed all that in my carry on bag, and then had gotten my liquids bag out as well as my umbrella. Just need to kick off my shoes, but those in the tray, then stick my liquids bag and umbrella next to them, and lay my jacket down on top of that. I then proceed to walk through and set off the metal detector, the inspector reports back to me that I walked too close to one of the sides, and said to try it again walking through it dead center. I did and no alarm sounded. Bob had a little more difficulty related to some items he needs to have, and the inspectors advised him to take them out of his bag before going through the checkpoints, and he didn't have any futher trouble with it the entire trip.

Having cleared security, we rode the train that took us out to Concourse A. I'm not used to Concourse A, but I recalled the last time I used it I thought it was the concourse that time forgot. We arrived at the concourse, and an escalator ride up brought us to the concourse itself. Well, the concourse is starting to look more updated but it doesn't have near the amount of food outlets as Concourses B and C. So with the aid of moving sidewalks, we found our way to gate A15. We got settled into seats near A15 and then checked our watches, 12:30. Great, again the time frame given by the airlines own advice is totally bogus. We decided to relax in the gate lounge area till about 1:30, then we would go source some food. About that time we headed to a Sam Adams pub and grill located near our gate. Bob had the portabello mushroom sandwhich and had the pub burger, which I am happy to report was grilled to order and tasted like it was grilled and even had a slight charcoal flavor. I also had the first beer of the trip, going for Sam Adams lager, and was shocked when I was carded for a beer. The conversation went like this: "I'd like to try a large lager please." "Sure, I will need to see your ID. I'll go get your beer while you get your ID" "Do I really look under 21?" "No, but the airport insists we ID everybody who orders a beer". Overall, it was a pretty good meal, and it also killed about an hour for us.

We return to the gate lounge and by this time the others have started to arrive. Around 2:45 Fr. Barry takes a roll call to make sure everybody who is traveling on this flight is here. We board our regional jet right around 3pm, and there is something to be said for everybody having checked their bags at the ticket counter, never mind 50 people excited about getting to Ireland. We all practically flew from the gate lounge and into our seats. On our way down the jetway, a baggage handler was coming up the ramp and commented to us "Man, there are a lot of people going to Ireland" We respond, that yes there about 45-50 of us, and he says that that explains it, every single bag he loaded onto the plane is tagged to Ireland.

It was your average regional jet flight, there was a beverage service, but that was about it. The flight attendants had a cute personality, a couple times during loading she had announced that we were going to Newark, so if you aren't going to Newark to come up front and tell her. Pretty standard stuff right, except shortly after take off she makes the same announcement except it was "If your travel plans didn't include Newark before, they do now" When we were arriving in Newark and it was about time to announce the gates for connecting flights, it was pretty much confirmed that although this was a regularly scheduled commercial flight we made it a de facto charter by buying up all the seats. She basically said "I see everybody is going to Shannon Ireland, so here is what everybody needs to do…" The captain thanked us for flying with them, and noted that he got us here 20 minutes early. As we were getting off the plane, Fr. Barry instructed everybody to wait up in the gate lounge area, and we'd make our move to the next gate as a group.

We arrived at Gate A23A, yes you read that right, it seems that to increase capacity and since this area is now serving regional jets, the former large gate areas were subdivided into two. Its located at terminal A in pod 2. Normally changing terminals at Newark involves leaving the airside secure zone, boarding an AirTrain to your next terminal and going back through securiy at your new terminal, and terminal A is even worse as each of the three pods is isolated and has its own security checkpoint. Well, it seems that Continental Airlines is one of the major tenants here, and they run the regional jets out of Terminal A, and their main line services out of Terminal C. We noted on our boarding passes that our next gate was, in fact, gate C72. We were instructed not to leave the secure area, and instead to head near gate A28 where we could board a bus to Terminal C that would allow us to travel from one terminal to the other and stay within the secure zone. We entered the queue area for the busses, and I noted there are two different queue areas, one for those heading to gates pod 3 of Terminal A, and the other for those of us going to Terminal C. In Newark you can't just ride the shuttle busses for the fun of it, as the attendants working the doors out to the busses were checking boarding passes to make sure you have a need to ride the bus. I'm not sure if this is an airline thing, to make sure only Continental customers are using the busses, or if its an airport thing to make sure the seats on the busses are reserved for those that actually need them, or if it's a TSA thing as you could go to a part of the airport you may not have access to through the regular TSA checkpoints.

Stay tuned for our next exciting installment!



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