Jet lag sucks.
Put together they are a massive, steaming pile of suckage.
Make a plan that glosses over those two points and you have a recipe for failure.
The ways in which LA sucks are many and varied, so let me come to them as flows within the narrative. For starters, LAX, the main international airport on the west coast is the worst airport I’ve ever been in. The sum total of things to do at that airport is (a) eat at bad restaurants (b) walk up and down around the outer perimeter of the of the terminals. (At least the weather is usually nice.)
In this post-9/11 world, where you potentially need hours to clear security before your flight, airlines don’t seem to be willing to schedule connecting flights within sane times of each other. The global economic recession hasn’t help either. Airline flights have been significantly curtailed and your choice of times and airlines has been drastically reduced. We used to try to schedule our flights through San Francisco because it shorten the flight across the ocean (by increasing the length of the domestic flight) and because the airport doesn’t suck as much as LA’s, but those flights are all gone now. You used to be able to schedule a transfer within about two hours of your international departure, now, with the comparative paucity of domestic flights and the potential of long, long security waits, you must wait much longer. (In all fairness to LAX, I’ve never spent more than 10 minutes getting through security, but it isn’t about how efficient they are most of the time, it’s all about the possibility that they might not be. Missing an international flight has a lot of negative ramifications on everyone, and the airlines and the travel agents aren’t willing to take risks. Better that you should suffer with long layovers.) On this trip, our delays were over 6 hours each. 6 hours at LAX is unfavorably comparable to 6 hours reading the white pages of the telephone book on an uncomfortable (broken) bench, while eating flavorless, dry rice cakes without benefit of anything to drink – alcoholic or otherwise.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with the family on the way out. 6 hours ought to be enough time to get out and do something, but instead we just ended up riding the train and eating. At least the food didn’t suck.
My flight back, alone, was worse. Not only did I have a 6+ hour layover, but I couldn’t even get a direct flight back to Phoenix. It would take 11 and a half hours for me to get back to Phoenix. It only takes six hours to drive to Phoenix from LA.
And thus begat my plan. To abandon my connecting flight back to Phoenix and simply rent a car one way from LA to Phoenix. I asked myself, “Would six hours in a car, after an 11 hour flight, be safe and possible?” Yes, I decided. First I considered the torture of another 6 hours in a seat: No problem, with a car you can stop and most any time and get out and walk around and stretch. Would jet lag prevent me from driving safely: No. My flight light Taipei at 4:50 in the afternoon and arrived the same day at 1:25 in the after in LA. (Yes, you travel backwards in time going from Taipei to LA) I figured that I’d be on the plane for a couple hours, they’d feed us and I’d go to sleep. It would be a little early going to bed, but I’d been napping in the afternoon lately, anyway. 1:25PM LA time is 4:25AM Taipei time. Again, a little early, but I typically wake up around 5:30, so I should, in theory, be rested and ready for the new day.
I optimistically booked a car for 2:00PM in LA and headed out on my flight, thinking, “This may be the model for all future flights to Taipei for me.”
So what went wrong? Most everything.
- I didn’t sleep on the flight. I got no more than three hours sleep in three, one-hour blocks.
- The plane travelled a long route. Typically the flight to Taiwan is up towards the pole and then across at the Aleutian Islands, then down the coast of Siberia, Korea, Japan and then to Taiwan. On the way back, they simply power straight across the ocean. (This has to do with utilizing the earth’s rotation under the plane and competing against or utilizing the jet stream. This is why the flight over is 14.5 hours, and the flight back is only 11.5 hours.) For some reason, this flight pushed us up north, crossing about parallel with Oregon and then down, overland, along the coast of California. We came in almost 30 minutes late.
- I got through customs in record time, and I foolishly thought that might mean I’d make up some of the lost time towards picking up my car. Wrong – I got through immigration quickly, but my luggage was absolutely the last two bags to come off the plane. By the time I’d retrieved it, the line for customs was a two-hundred strong. (It moved efficiently and quickly but it was still a lot of people.)
- The rental car place isn’t really even close to the airport. It’s a 10-15 minute drive by shuttle bus – once you’ve caught the bus. I arrived at Alamo at just 15 minutes before 3:00PM.
- It was 45 minutes to get to me because, despite there being 40 people in line, they only ever had 3 of their 8 representative desks operating at any time, and often, the reps stopped helping customers and stood around and organized their paperwork in full sight of the fuming customers. Once to a representative, my rental took all of 5 minutes to get out the door, and I discovered, to my joy that Shakey’s Pizza (a childhood favorite but now long defunct in Arizona) was 2 blocks away. I was there by 4:00PM.
- They were the slowest pizza place I’ve been in in years. They did have a children’s birthday party of about 40 kids, which was keeping them busy. It was over an hour to get out the door.
- It was 5:00PM before I got traveling towards home. Given that it takes 6 hours to get to home, that now put my estimated arrival about 11:00 PM. If I had stayed on the flight, I’d be at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport at 11:30PM. I was still ahead of the plane flight, but now only by an hour to an hour and a half.
Let me talk about another reason why LA sucks for a moment. LA and Phoenix have something in common. They bother are relatively modern cities, and their population explosions occurred since the invention of the automobile. While Los Angeles truly is the archetype of “urban sprawl”, Phoenix is right up there with it, for exactly the same reasons. Phoenix is a vast urban area. Los Angeles is quite a lot bigger still. For the record, let me say that LA is a major international city and Phoenix is a podunk. I would not deign to put these two cities in the same category. LA is in a class with New York, London, Taipei, Shanghai, etc. Phoenix is in a class with Albuquerque.
Nonetheless, the geographic and demographic forces which shaped LA also shaped Phoenix. The major differences are these: LA has lots of things to see and do, but they’re so damned spread out that it’s a nightmare to get to them. Phoenix, on the other hand, is essentially just as spread out but because there’s nothing to do here, the issue of getting from point A to point B isn’t as acute. Also, Phoenix is a newer city and, although our freeway system is a lot smaller than the LA freeway system, our fair city (as well as many others around the US and the world) have benefited greatly because our freeway engineers grew up and were trained with the knowledge of all the freakin’ stupid, idiotic mistakes made when California built their freeway system.
LA’s freeways are extensive, but grew organically. There is no logical pattern to them, they do not use consistent means for onramps, off-ramps, freeway junctions, signage or anything else. It’s a bit like hot and cold taps in Taiwan: You never know which one will be hot and which one will be cold, until you test it by turning it on.
But I was armed with an auto-GPS navigation system, and, for the most part, it kept me well-informed enough to navigate the freeways across the maddening urban sprawl that is LA. Let’s go back to the list.
- It’s 6 hours from LA to Phoenix. Unless the freeways were moving at 10-20MPH, in which it’s two days travel.
- Funny thing about being jet lagged and not getting enough sleep, staring at the rear end of the car ahead of you in a traffic jam for nearly two hours can make you incredibly, dangerously tired.
- When I reached Riverside (which means, basically, I was still in the LA sprawl) I saw a Motel 6 and gave up, pulled in, checked in and within 30 minutes was sound asleep, expecting to have a hard time waking up in the morning and getting going.
- At 1:30AM I snapped wide awake. Why 1:30? Jet lag sucks, and it rarely makes much sense. 1:30AM, is 4:30PM in Taipei. Why my body spontaneously awoke – and it is like a light switching on – I was completely awake without any of the usual drowsy dragging that normally accompanies my transition from sleep to wakefulness. It was quite clear that the people in the next room hadn’t even gone to be yet.
- I showered, ambled across the street for a big bacony, eggy breakfast at Denny’s, checked out and was on my way by 3:00AM.
After that it was just a five and a half hour drive, with stops, getting me home at about 8:30AM, just a scant 19 hours after I arrived in LA.
Perhaps next time I go to Taiwan, they’ll have installed a high speed railway between LA and Phoenix. Perhaps I’ll wait until they do.