Monday, January 5, 2015

Houston, we have a problem

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” — Saint Augustine

AHA! We’re aboard our cruise ship a little more than half way between Houston and Cozumel. It was dicey tying up all the loose ends to be able to go, but here we are on our own little balcony sailing along in 77 degree weather.

I’ll tell you what I’ve learned so far about where we are and how we got here, in case it might be helpful to you. 

We sailed out of Houston, a point of embarkation we originally chose because we didn’t think we were going to be able to afford the cruise and airfare, and Houston was the closest port to Des Moines. When Paul lived in Austin, he used to make the drive from there to Des Moines every now and then, and his brother Tom just made the trek. 

Since Houston is about the same distance from Des Moines as Austin is, we thought, “Okay, we can make the drive."

But then the reality of just how long a drive that is — 20 hours down and 20 hours back — settled in, and I began to think I should at least check for flights. I didn’t bother looking at any out of Des Moines since we generally pay a penalty in airfare for living here. I was lucky and found a round trip flight on Spirit Airlines out of Kansas City that was listed for $109 apiece

We’d never flown Spirit before; we knew it was a stripped down airline, but just how stripped down came as a surprise. I don’t mind paying to check a bag, but having to pay for a seat — not just a better seat — but any seat whatsoever, seems utterly duplicitous! Was there an option to stand? No, there was not, so a seat should come with a ticket. 

By the time we added the bag, taxes and “seats”, our round trip fare had risen from $109 each to $161. Driving would have cost half as much as flying, but considering that we saved at least 40 hours on the road, still well worth it.

It was a nonstop flight, which was a plus, but the disadvantage of it was that it left at 6:45 AM. Considering that we had to drive from Des Moines, it meant leaving our house at zero-dark-thirty. 

Spirit Airlines only flies into George Bush International Airport which is a long way from Bayport from whence the cruise ships depart. When I say a long way, I mean an hour or more depending on how you choose to travel. 

Although our ship left on Saturday, Jan 3, we elected to fly in the day before just to be on the safe side because if you’re not on the ship when it leaves, it’s your loss. If we had to do it again, given that we were on the ground about 9:00 AM and the ship didn’t leave until 4:00 PM the following day, we probably would have flown in on the day itself.

We were at sixes and sevens as to where to spend the night. We considered staying near the airport; we considered staying near the port. In the end I chose the middle ground: downtown. 

After I booked it, I thought the downtown location was going to prove to be a mistake because getting there from the airport would be a $70 or $80 cab ride, and the next day we still had to get transportation from the hotel to the port for at least that much again.

Ah ha! We came up with an inexpensive work-around. 

I did a bit of online research before we left and learned there was a Metro Line bus that went from the airport terminal to downtown Houston. Cost: $1.25 per person. 

This method of transport wouldn’t be for everyone. Although the bus was clean and new, a bus is still a bus which meant that it stopped frequently and as a result took an hour — twice as long as it would have otherwise — to get there. We didn’t mind because we weren’t going to be able to check into our hotel until 11:30 AM anyway.

Houston, regrettably, is not a pretty place. Paul said that he recalls seeing Houston listed as the number 2 (no pun intended, though perhaps appropriate) city in the US for urban sprawl. It's not only spread out all over everywhere, but the city doesn't seem to take much pride in what face it presents to the world.

Our route from the airport to downtown was strewn beginning to end with an unbelievable amount of trash. I don’t know if all the streets in Houston are like that; perhaps the streets the affluent drive upon are kept tidy, but this route was mile after mile of litter. I'm flabbergasted that the city doesn't hire workers to keep the streets from looking like a third-world country.

We chose a small boutique hotel called Club Quarters for our overnight in Houston. Despite having a tiny room (we knew it was when we booked it), we loved it. It was quiet, and they have an awesome staff — exceptionally accommodating and helpful, plus easily-accessed, free wi-fi.

FYI: Club Quarters also has hotels in New York City, London, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

Plan A was to go to the zoo or the aquarium that day, but we were too tired. We napped and went to dinner. We walked to a restaurant called Massa’s Seafood and Grill, now in its third generation of ownership by the Massa family. We shared a bowl of corn and crab chowder that was to die. Seriously, the best soup ever! Unfortunately the rolls, biscuits and corn muffins we were served weren’t even sort of fresh, and our entrees were just okay,.

To our eyes, it looks as though there is a great deal of homelessness in Houston, particularly downtown. On the way back to our room, we met a Mr. Kelly who asked us for spare change or food.

I said we’d be happy to buy him something to eat, and he walked with us back to the store where he got to shop for whatever he wanted. 

He said, “Really?!? Are you sure you don’t want to give me a limit?” 

Paul said, “No limit. Get what you want.” 

He did, and it was really a quite modest selection, and it was all food — in other words, no beer, booze or cigarettes. Paul bought one additional item for him — a yoga mat to use for padding the concrete where he sleeps. 

Our short evening walk in downtown Houston revealed the two sides of my relationship to money — judicious about getting the most value for the least cost . . . especially in the face of gougery (not a word, but it should be) — but happy to share with someone who needs it; makes sense if you've grown up poor.

The next morning we had to solve the problem of transportation to Bayport, and we weren't keen on paying the $80 or $90 cab or shuttle fare that seemed to be the going rate. Then Paul had a bright idea: he suggested we try a new option called Uber. It’s a cab alternative. Private parties get approved by Uber to be drivers, but drive their own cars instead of company cabs. 

We asked the front desk their opinion, and they gave us their unqualified positive recommendation, plus as it turned out they had a $20-off coupon, so we gave it a go. 

It was awesome! There was someone at the hotel to pick us up literally two minutes after Paul entered where we were and where we wanted to go on the Uber app on his phone. We were driven in a clean, newish car, the driver was friendly, intelligent and helpful, and with the discount, our fare was $24.

Altogether we spent a total of $27 on ground transportation to get from the airport to the port. We met another couple on board who had been in the the same situation — arriving the day before, needing to get to a hotel, staying the night and then getting to the boat, and their cab tab was $150. I think we did pretty well; they were impressed anyway.

The ride to Bayport was also unsightly with little else but sprawling, smoke-belching processing plants and refineries as far as the eye could see.

So — in summation: Spirit Airlines deceptive, Massa's Seafood and Grill good and bad, Uber excellent, Club Quarters really good, but Houston bites. 

A very happy Paul inside our cabin.
The view from our cabin to our balcony.
Sunset from our balcony.

1 comment:

  1. You didn't see enough of the city to judge Houston so harshly. None of us are proud of the ugly ride from the big airport to downtown, but the rest of the city is very livable and it's a great place to raise a family. You got it right about the sprawl, though.