Transit Adventures

Flying SWA to Charleston via Chicago for a Short Getaway using an Expiring Fare Voucher – I’m taking the Palmetto Home


A year ago today exactly I snagged a great deal on a Southwest Airlines flight for $87 from New York to Denver to start my weeklong skiing in Utah and visiting friends in Denver Trip. I ended up canceling that ticket which on Southwest Airlines gives you a credit and then buying another one on Delta Air Lines for only $104 a few weeks before my actual departure so I could enjoy more time visiting the Grand Central Centennial Celebration and had a nice final trip through now nearly demolished Terminal 3, the old Pan-Am World Port at Kennedy Airport. I’m in the process of planning another Ski and Visiting Friends Trip out West this January (it will include some Amtrak and finishing Denver RTD riding too!) and last Sunday (ten days ago) I tried to book one direction of this ticket on Southwest Airlines. I couldn’t apply my voucher but didn’t get a this voucher not valid message either. I then realized I naively thought that Southwest Vouchers were like Amtrak vouchers and as long as you booked a future flight by their expiration date you were fine, not that they required to be flown by that date. I ended up calling sitting on hold for five minutes and reaching the friendliest Southwest agent straight out of Texas who explained to me that I had to use up the funds and fly by the expiration date on the voucher, not just buy a ticket buy that date. She told me to call Customer Relations (a local Texas number, open only during business hours) to ask for an extension.

A week ago today (a week before the expiration) I called customer relations during the day and was told that the only extensions could be made after the vouchers expired and a new voucher number would be issued with a $100 service fee deducted. I didn’t even give the confirmation number attached to these funds and found out that I basically had a week to use $87 worth of funds on Southwest Airlines. I also realized that I could get away with work wise taking a quick Wednesday to Saturday trip. I went on and started entering destinations. A week before travel I couldn’t find any $87 deals but found a number of $99 ones, all on flights out of New York with connections. The only parameters I sent for myself was riding an Amtrak route I hadn’t ridden back to New York. Fares I found that worked were to Charlotte, Charleston, SC and Tampa. I then started looking up Amtrak fares. I have to say that the Carolinian/Silver Service/Palmetto have quite high fares. No one-way trips cheeper than $100, I could fly home for less. I then did my usual hostel search and decided on Charleston, Charlotte lacks a hostel and the trip seems to rushed for Tampa, and I don’t really feel like any overnights in Coach on this trip. As much as I want to ride Tampa’s Streetcar and the Charlotte LYNX Light Rail at some point, I decided going somewhere to have a day just to relax and be a tourist is exactly what I’m up for right now.

I then decided to book the trip putting $12 more non-refundable dollars down. The routing turned out to be totally ridiculous via Chicago! (A non-stop just to Chicago leg was $200-$300) at least I could decide on a whim to go to Chicago (doing throw-away ticketing) instead if I so desire.


From Great Circle Mapper: A non-stop LGA to CHS is 641 miles (and would have cost me less, only $89 on a Delta Air Lines non-stop through JFK) Going over 1,000 miles out of my way, flying a total of 1470 miles: 725 miles on the first leg, 745 on the second.

Today, The Flights:

I’m nervous because I read about how Chicago is having a snowstorm and extreme cold. I wake-up a couple of times to check on my flights (part of me just hopes they will cancel so I can get my money back and bag the trip), I am though committed because I have a reservation at the NotSo Hostel in Charleston. I leave the house at 6:43 after noticing an M98 has left the 190 Street terminal. I want to try the new QJackson Heights to the Airport Express Bus but living north of 125 Street makes this option seem too ridiculous. The bus is relatively empty but takes a while to leave the neighborhood, as it becomes packed like sardines standing room before we get on the Harlem River Drive at 6:58 for the non-stop express run to 125 Street.
We get off the highway at Park Avenue and 133 Street just before a traffic jam!
I get off at Park Avenue at 7:07 and it takes far too long to make it to the stop on the south side of the street as I use bus time and realizing I’m just missing two M60s that are experiencing bus bunching. I try and speed walk to catch up but they have gotten too far ahead.
At 7:16 the next M60 shows up, a packed articulated. I barely make it on but once I obnoxiously push my way to the back mainly commuters but some travelers who can’t seem to make it to the luggage rack although there is plenty of space towards the back of the bus. This route needs off-board fare collection also for more efficient loading.
Were at the N train at 7:30 where the bus empties out enough to allow me to snag a seat.
We wend our way through Queens and I get off at my little trick, the parking lot across from the main terminal to avoid looping around to Delta at 7:46. I walk through the empty baggage claim up the escalators to the more crowded departure level, past the empty Checkpoint for the C gates, and an unfortunately crowded checkpoint for the B gates (what I like to call the LLC Concourse since its home to Southwest/AirTrain, Frontier and Sprit) to the Southwest Airlines Ticket Counter. I grab my boarding passes (I checked in on line exactly 24 hours before and got seating numbers A53 and A34) and ask and find out boarding for Southwest Flights begins 30 minutes before departure.
At 8:00 I’m checking into the UnitedClub that is outside of security in the old LGA Terminal, deciding I will leave at 8:30. The agent is friendly, knows what my Amtrak Select+ card is, asks me if I’m flying United. I respond “Unfortunately not” and responds “That’s Fine” understanding as she should that I can use the club while flying any airline. The Club is nice, large and empty. It has a neat view of the tarmac below. I do wish that it was post-Security for all airlines so I didn’t have to worry about to go through security. The only breakfast options is some granola that is surprisingly good, other cereals and extremely poor looking mini-bagels. I do grab a copy of the New York Times for the flight, compliments of United. I also realize that I’ve forgotten the book I’m looking forward to reading on this trip.


I leave just before 8:30 and security is the usual at LGA, deceptively crowded because they don’t have space for a larger checkpoint and more space for lines. This lack of space also means that there isn’t space for nude-o-scopes that I can’t stand, just the old fashioned metal detectors that I much much much prefer! I’m through by 8:55 as they announce our plane has landed from Milwaukee and should be on time time.
My exactly 24 hours before got me A54 and I’m through at 9:12 in line and feel like I’m getting on a train, choosing a window seat towards the back. I’m not early enough for an exit row but the legroom isn’t bad. We finish boarding at 9:30 with an empty seat next to me (the one closest to the front of the plane, I choose well!). As of a month ago the FAA announced electronic devices weighing less than two pounds can now be used gate to gate. It’s strange to hear “Please ensure all cell phones are in airplane mode only.” Instead of fully off, If you have an off switch the phone must be fully off. This new FAA ruling went into effect a month ago. We push back at 9:32.
Going by the US Airways, now shared with Delta terminal (the slot swap a few years ago) I’m surprised to see WestJet, I guess they’re in that terminal too.
There is a bit of a line up for the runway and we finally take off at 9:49, listening to my iPhone while I read the paper, something now permitted, that doesn’t quite feel kosher. We take off over New York’s closed island, Rickers that I’ve only seen from the air, Were 9:54 – They announce it’s now safe to use electronic devices and the flight has wifi. I got an email about this yesterday that said that anything above 2 pounds needs to be stowed during take off and landing. I glance at the magazine and it was clearly printed before the FAA directive, nothing about device use gate-to-gate.

Southwest is like JetBlue asking for drink orders, I ask for ginger ale and then coming through with peanuts. I’ve realized I’ve forgotten one thing on this trip, the book I was looking forward to reading. I use my phone and discover a flight map can be accessed for free via the wifi. There also doing a promo of free TV that won’t help me since both my devices are elderly and have poor battery life. I spend the flight listening to my iPod and reading wondering if Midway Airport has a bookstore. The weather is clear until about Pennsylvania before becoming completely cloudy.

I notice we’re taking a southern approach into Midway, not over Lake Michigan I assume to keep as far away from O’Hare and its traffic as possible. The Midwest has a dusting of snow but looks more like its frozen then snowy. I see the Laks Michigan and the rail lines behind it along with the casino in Whiting. I see the Metra electric with platforms covered in snow and the numerous other railroad lines that make Chicago such an important railroad junction.

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I get a nice photo of the Midway CTA Station-Parking Garage-Airport, showing just how far the train to gate transfer is just before we land at 10:58 CST (gaining an hour I will soon lose) They later say “The 4 of you heading to Nashville stay seated” were at Gate B2, the closest to the terminal exit (that requires everyone to cross a street to reach the check-in counters and baggage claim because of the cramped area the airport is located at). I get off the plane and get some photos of the Train to City-CTA signs for my Midway Airport–(3 Photos) CTA Page.


I spend the layover browsing the books at Hudson News to try and find something to read (I’m a big user of libraries normally). I find a book that interests me a hardcover that has the check-out lady saying “Your a big spender.” I head out to gate B23 a half-hour before scheduled departure as the inbound flight is offloaded from Minneapolis, another Southwest Airlines continuing plane segment. They announce that there only loading 56 passengers so there shouldn’t be a C group. I wonder how crowded the plane is already. I’m A33, the front of the second line in the puller situation. They’re 2 Business Select Customers. I get my full boarding pass taken as Southwest normally does. No printed receipts for either of my flight segments today. I head to the back of the plane, wondering if I’ll get an entire row in the back. The crew has a much bigger sense of humor than before. The flight is nearly empty, I have a whole row and other rows are completely empty with no one in them! I didn’t really need to go to the back. There also some pilots of other airlines deadheading. This plane lacks wifi. They announce we don’t need deicing and we wait until 12:13 (were scheduled for 12:15) when they finally have the door locked so we can leave the gate. I feel like I’m on a train waiting for our actual departure time to highball it out.

The flight attendant attendants try and add some humor to the safety instructions. I’m too much of a New Yorker and not used to it. I’m airborne again at 12:28 CST, seeing the railroads around Midway and going up into the clouds.
We are told that this is unfortunately not a wifi equipped plane but there is a cross world puzzle in the inflight magazine as we go above 10,000 feet at 12:30 CST and I basically lose the hour I just gained.

The flight I spend reading the beginning of the book I bought in the limited selection in Midway Airport and am quite enjoying. I eat the peanut butter sandwiches I’ve brought from home along with a banana mooched from the UnitedClub. They do the usual drink service (like JetBlue but this flight is so empty she doesn’t bother to write our orders down and is clearly just remembering them) and I have coffee and water. I ask more more water and get the entire can. Yes Southwest Airlines has their filtered water catered in Southwest branded CANs, not bottles. This is something I’ve never seen on a plane, everything else in cans but not normally water, it is generally still bottled.


We get the final descent at 2:55 EST, not too long a flight.

Touchdown is at 3:03 and the flight attendant makes another ridiculous announcement. I see the air force base and we have a but of a taxi to the terminal that is small and reminds me of Syracuse. There plenty of empty gates but the one allocated to Southwest has a plane at it so we have to wait for it to push back. It soon does. There is some construction going on at the airport. Terminal expansion clearly occurring. As we taxi I notice what’s clearly a 747 Dreamlifter off in the distance (the stretched 747s that bring parts for new 787s)

I check my phone and find out the hourly CARTA bus leaves (according to Google) on the :58 giving me nearly an hour as we get to the gate at 3:12.

I walk out into a packed waiting room that looks straight out of the 1980s with black bench AmStation seating. I use the restroom and am bombarded by the announcements for the next segment of my Southwest Flight to Nashville, they need to lower their PA volume. I head out of security, passing the Nude-O-Scopes and notice the airport has two small concourses each with their own checkpoints. I then stop at tourism information and grab the Hourly Airport Bus Timetable. I chat with the tourism representative a bit and she’s heard of the Charleston Hostel! She then points out the tourists sites on the map and tells me not to go basically north of the street the hostels on. I head outside and try and see if I can get a photo of the Dreamlifter, not quite, walking back through I pass the United Ticket Counter with a Banner on it welcoming United’s 1st South Carolina Built (its a pro-labor, non-union state, unlike Washington) and 8th overall 787.

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I wander through the airport terminal a bit and find a bunch of fake Christmas Trees on display with different decorations, some totally ridiculous. They all have little signs on them like “Happy Holidays from US Customs and Border Patrol” “…Delta,” “…Jet Blue” “…Hertz” all the airlines. I realize its basically all the different employees that run the airport decorating fake Christmas Trees to get in the holiday sprit. Some have paper awards on them. TSA’s wins “Most traditional tree,” United’s is covered in construction materials (since the airport is a complete mess).

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I eventually head to the middle traffic island and turn left going beyond the taxis and the the end of the canopy that covers passengers waiting for ground transportation. Here at the end of the island, exposed to the elements, without a bench is the tiny CARTA sign. I’ve left my backpack (and coat-its a lot warmer in Charleston) here in these photos for context Not a good way to encourage Public Transit use. I also see Southwest Airlines Texas Flag plane.

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CARTA bus route 11 comes a little early at 3:56pm. I’m the only airline passenger it’s already crowded. An older high-floor model. I see a sign for Amtrak but this bus takes a different route. I just put $1.75 in the farebox, transfers cost 30¢ extra here. It’s the usual GFI farebox but the tickets are printed with CARTA let’s ride. I’ll have to pick one up when I take the bus again. It has the same “Caution, this bus is making a turn” voice as Nice bus.
4:19 – Stop across from a transit center with a small building in North Charleston.
A women gets on and says that’s my husband, giving the driver a Kiss. She does pay here fare. The bus isn’t standing room only but isn’t empty. It feels like a typical ride on a transit system used mainly by ‘forced’ transit riders (those who don’t have cars and have no other way to get around).
4:29 – We finally enter the actual city of Charlestown. We cross some rail lines that I’m surprised to see are Norfolk Southern. The ride into town is through a clearly slightly run down area, not the large antebellum homes I’ve seen in photos. I guess although I’m arriving by bus
I get off the bus at 4:40 and have a good nearly mile walk to the NotSo hostel. I get there at 4:55, the office opens at 5:00. They have emailed me a door code and I decide I might as well wait.

At about 5:05 an employee shows up and I check in to the little hostel.

Unfortunately darkness has descended but I still go for a long walk and find some dinner walking south through downtown seeing the low-rise large houses that I’m sure will look much more interesting in full daylight. I end up having a quiet evening in the hostel. I believe I’m (as usual) the only American.