Saturday, August 2, 2008

WRT: Thoughts... on Road Trip Planning

Well, Wild fandom, free-agent season has passed, the schedule has been released, so it must be that time of year again.

Time to plan the upcoming season's road adventures to support our Minnesota Wild. And of course, you must plan in order to get good seats, good rates and good fares.

A lot of people come up to me and ask, 'How do you do it?'

Simple. It's all in the planning. And, admittedly, a little luck is involved.

The planning part is done now, in the heat of summer. Deciding which games to go see is the first order of business. If you travel with someone (be it wife, friend, co-worker or child) you must take their needs also into account. A warm poolside lounge chair, a sunny sky, a hotel with free internet access, that is what my wife wants. She is as happy by a chaise lounge next to a pool as I am at a hockey arena near the glass.

When we are on the road, the game's the thing. Some of my wife's co-workers have commented about her lack of knowledge of Chicago, even though we've attended all but one Wild-Blackhawks game at the United Center since the 2004-05 lockout. Chicago holds no special value for me anymore (I've been going to Chicago since I was 18,) and a lot of the perpetually-trendy Gold Coast/North Side areas are way-y-y out of my league. (Always have been.)

However, she could actually hold her own if you asked her to meet you at the UC, for example, despite the fact that it's in one of the worst neighborhoods in North America. She knows as well as I do how to get to the arena (taxi or CTA bus, don't drive your own car) and, more importantly, how to get away from the arena (CTA #19 Stadium Express bus, with the other Wild fans who are also staying in the Loop). One trip back Downtown, after a Wild victory in 2007, featured the singing of the 'Wild Anthem' as the bus bounced down Madison St., towards the railroad stations.

'New' arenas present different sets of problems, especially if the arena is in an unfamiliar location. Case in point: South Florida's BankAtlantic Center, home of the Florida Panthers, which was built on the edge of the Everglades, in west suburban Sunrise near the massive (5-wing) Sawgrass Mills shopping mall and the TPC Sawgrass golf club. Our problems started when we found out there were two LaQuinta Inns directly across the street from each other, two miles south of the arena. We chose the one which was $10/night less. Not a major mistake, but in hindsight I wish we'd stayed at the other one, due to the better in-hotel breakfast across the street. Little things like that occasionally come back to haunt you.

Another mistake on the same trip: Going for cheaper seats to save a few dollars. You might as well save somewhere else and get better seats in the same area. I thought we were in Dade County from where we were sitting, near the top of the lower level in the cavernous BAC. Sometimes you get lucky, however: we also had seats six rows from the glass for a 2007 game in Buffalo for $38/each, the same seats for a Sabres-Leafs game would have been $140/each.

Hints to avoid disappointment:

1. Determine a budget. And stick to it. There are deals to be had out there. Air fares to cold northern cities don't go thru the roof in the dead of winter. Most airlines need to fill seats on days other than Friday and Sunday. If you can book early enough, wait until your airline of choice has a seat sale. Then go for it. Hotels near arenas sometimes have discounted rates for visiting fans; with some more popular teams, a hotel's hockey package may be the only way to get tickets.

2. Look at the arena's seating chart. Most will tell you which end the home team shoots at in the 1st and 3rd periods. Many arenas discount seats in the other end -- the end that you, as a fan of the visiting team, want anyway. If you are unsure, watch highlights or a prior game from the same arena on TV (another great benefit of having the NHL Network on your cable or satellite) or on that team's website.

Also, know when the tickets go on sale. Most teams will begin selling tickets in mid-September; a few (Chicago, St. Louis, the Florida teams) will start before that. Certain other teams (most notably, Calgary and Edmonton) will only sell a few games at a time, or only on a set date during the season. Yes, that makes it harder to plan for these locations, but it can still be done.

3. Avoid being gouged by ridiculous rental car rates. Book in advance and return to the same location. Better yet, use public transit. In many cases, it's the easiest way -- and in some others, the only really safe way --to get in and out of the arena area. (And, it can be fun travelling after the game with fellow Wild fans, as we have in several locations.)

4. The following is especially true with Ticketmaster. If you don't see what you want online, get on the phone and call them. If you get a good TM rep (believe it or not, most really DO want to help you) you'll be able to designate a section near where you REALLY want to sit and find you something you can at least accept. Remember Rule No. 2: the seats you really want are in the home team's end of the ice during the 1st and 3rd periods. Knowing the section number you want most is helpful; TM phone agents can punch that section number in and then tell you what's nearest to that spot. Remember, 'best available' to Ticketmaster (and to fans of the home team) doesn't necessarily mean 'best available' to you.

5. Know what airlines fly where. You can frequently get a better deal with an airline when you are not flying into their 'fortress' hub city. Where there is airline competition, there are lower airfares.

6. Sometimes, the plane is not the best way to get from city to city. Just because your favorite team can fly via charter from, say, Calgary to Edmonton, doesn't mean you have the scratch to do it, too. Short-to-medium hops can better be done by train, car or bus for far less money. Using Calgary to Edmonton as an example, the air fare one-way on Air Canada Jazz (read: Turbo-prop) was well over $300/person one-way. Greyhound had a 2-for-1 sale on for $64. The bus was perfectly fine for the three-hour express run. We saved over $300 just on that alone.

7. Remember, you're on a schedule, too. Travel early in the day. Unless you have no other choice, (usually for financial reasons) try to fly in the morning. The air traffic control system is not as backed up in the morning, and neither are the highways. If anything does occur, you will be able to reschedule plans if there are more options available to you, and that only happens early in the day.

8. Hotels near the arena are conveinent and nice...but not always. You normally pay for that conveinence, either in higher rates or (e.g., like in Edmonton) a poorer-quality hotel which had seen better days. Choose your hotels carefully; hotels near but not real close to the arena give you better quality rooms, and sometimes, have hotel packages which include game tickets.

9. When you get there, find out what's open, especally if a holiday or special event is occuring at the same time as you are there. We wound up in Edmonton on an Easter Sunday, and finally went to an Earl's Steakhouse for dinner. We later found out it was virtually the only restaurant in central Edmonton open that Sunday night, and we missed seeing the Wild players there by less than one hour. Not even the restaurants in four-and-five-star hotels are open normal schedules on holidays and/or weekends.

10. At the game: You will be harassed (sometimes, viciously) by the opposing fans, especially in certain arenas in the South, where they think everything is like football. When you respond, please, think of what a small child would hear. Keep it 'G' rated and all will be cool. Most real fans will respect you. The rest, well, they've been over-served.

Certain arenas (the ones where teams don't draw well) will be more boisterous than others, as there will be hundreds of visiting fans rooting along with you. We have yet to go to an arena where we haven't run into Wild fans, especially as we walk the promenade prior to the warm-ups. Sometimes, there aren't many others (Calgary and the 'C of Red', Edmonton, Vancouver) and sometimes, there are thousands (Phoenix, Florida, Chicago, altho maybe not this season as the Blackhawks announced last week the club passed the 10,000 mark in season tickets), but never have we been the 'Lone Rangers' in an arena.

Other teams' fans kinda get into it also, once they figure out you just came for their game. We've been treated well everywhere we've been (with the notable exception of San Jose's HP Pavilion, whose fans and staff couldn't have been ruder if they possibly tried.)

Remember, the closer to a Wild road win you get, the more vicious they will become. Don't let them get to you. If nothing else, just point to the scoreboard. Let it speak for you.

And above all else: Have fun! (After all, that's why you GO, isn't it?)


Nick in New York said...

wow! Now THAT'S what I call information!

I smell a travel guide book, WRT.

Well done man!

WRT - Wild Road Tripper said...

Maybe someday, when the NHL can get its' act together and standardize some policies, especially about in-arena photography, I might think of something. It might be easier to put something in a League publication (the NHL-produced 'RINKSIDE' magazine, as example) or on TV (FSN North; I might be a better intermission subject than, say, another 'Face-Off'.)

But I'm really not blowing my own horn.

Nick in New York said...

fair enough...well, until then, at least HTP can benefit from your expertise

Anonymous said...

Great Post WRT - I might make a go of it this year. I don't want to go to New Jersey in March, but I do want to visit the Prudential Center.

Congrats on the mention in USA Hockey. Well deserved.

Nick in New York said...

ballgame: fwiw, I may be at that game in Jersey. I'm no Tony Soprano, but at least I'd be a friendly face...

WRT - Wild Road Tripper said...

Ballgame: Go to NJ in March. It's better than in January when a Nor'easter could roar up the coast and snow you in. Besides, it will be 2010 before the Wild see 'the Rock' again. Granted, the NHL Schedule makers really hate the Wild, but it would be a game worth going to. I may do it myself (as well as the other two NYC-area games that next mid-week.)

Stay tuned...