Tips to travel by

March 1, 1999

Ahhh, it's springtime. The days are getting longer, flowers are budding, the birds and bees are doing their thing, and a man's and woman's minds turn to — vacation planning. It happened again this past weekend, as it seems to about the same time every year. We're enjoying a cup of coffee, listening to the cold winter rain pelt the windows. Out of her purse she pulls her Hallmark calendar into which she has crammed enough detailed planning to put any electronic scheduler to shame — birthdays and anniversaries of people we have yet to meet. Need to know when Boxing Day is in Bangladesh? It's in there.

"So when are we going to Ocean City this year?"

And thus begins an afternoon of comparing calendars and work schedules to figure out when we can get away for a few days or a week. It's understood that most of the travel will be by airplane because we long ago discovered the flexibility and pleasure that comes from flying ourselves to vacation destinations. We usually plan an average of one such outing a month for the warmer months. Fully a third of them won't happen because of life's conflicts, but half the fun is the planning and investigation of new places to go.

The trick in traveling by general aviation is to leverage the airplane's ability to take you places that nonpilots can only dream about. And you needn't be an aircraft owner to enjoy the benefits of general aviation travel. Renter pilots with a knack for negotiating can often strike good deals with FBOs and flight schools to use aircraft during quieter times. Everyone wants to go for $100 hamburgers on the weekend, so why not travel during the week? You will eat up more of your vacation time, but your destination will probably be less busy during the week.

FBOs and flight schools often charge a minimum of two to three flight hours a day when the aircraft is away from home base. Fly during the week when there is less demand for the airplane and you can often negotiate the minimum away, especially if you are a good customer who flies regularly and pays on time.

Primary trainers and light airplanes always seem to be in use at flight schools. However, the high-performance and multiengine trainers sometimes go for days at a time without flying. Talk to the flight school manager. You might be able to negotiate a favorable rate for the less-busy aircraft and log some high-performance or multi time as well.

Do you have a friend or acquaintance who's also a pilot? Consider traveling together to share costs. You needn't spend all of your time on vacation together; just meet at the airplane when it's time to go home. If your friend is a flight instructor, consider getting a flight review or instrument proficiency check while en route. You will incur those costs anyhow; why not make an adventure of it?

Plan your vacation to take advantage of the time savings an airplane affords. Make two-day trips on which you are actually flying the minimum number of hours and not leaving the airplane to sit idle. Even with a groundspeed of 120 knots or so, you can cover a lot of territory in a few hours, taking you places for a two-day vaca-tion that ground-lings can only imagine.

For example, if you don't live within a couple of hours' drive of Michigan's Mackinac Island, a weekend there is completely impractical — unless you have access to an airplane. With a pilot certificate in your pocket, you can easily make it a short trip from anywhere in the upper Midwest or the Mid-Atlantic states. Land on the island's well-maintained runway, call for your horse-drawn carriage into town, and you're ready for a weekend adventure. Transportation on the island is by carriage, foot, or bicycle, so there is no need to fret about rental car availability (see " Mackinac Island: America's Victorian Roots," July 1998 Pilot).

One of our most memorable airplane vacations was to Mackinac a few years ago. My wife's parents' home falls almost under a great circle route from our home in Maryland to Mackinac. We made a quick stop there to drop off our infant daughter. Within minutes, we were airborne again with Mackinac set in the GPS. We fueled up at nearby Mackinac County Airport on the mainland and then hopped over to the island. The 3.5-hour flight from our home to Mackinac compared most favorably with what would have been a 12.5-hour drive.

As with other popular seasonal destinations, hotel rooms on Mackinac can be difficult to find, and sometimes a three- to five-night minimum applies. But we've found that persistence can usually whittle that number down if you want to spend only a night or two. And if yours is a last-minute trip, you can often snap up rooms left vacant by those who have canceled. A savvy hotel manager will be glad to rent you a room and bend the rule about the minimum number of nights because he or she knows that the room might otherwise be vacant.

So what about weather delays or cancellations? Again, flexibility and negotiations pay off. We've postponed a few vacations because lousy weather moved in, but we've never given up a hotel deposit. If a reservation agent gives you a hard time about canceling and refuses to refund your deposit, ask to have the deposit applied to another weekend instead of having it refunded. Don't be afraid to speak to the manager. Occasionally you'll even find one who is a pilot and who will completely understand that your arrival will be delayed by gale-force winds and thunderstorms. By the way, we've had more vacations postponed by sick kids than by unforecast weather.

We once had a trip planned to coastal North Carolina, the birthplace of aviation. As the appointed departure day arrived, Hurricane Bob zeroed in on the coast, and the authorities began evacuating the coastal islands. We canceled our rental car and hotel rooms and instead found another destination to the west, well out of Bob's reach.

When considering pure economics, it's tough to compete with the airlines when traveling to distant popular tourist destinations. Even my miserly Cessna Skyhawk can't compete with the airlines on a trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The air fares there are just too cheap. But we use our airplane to visit places that we'd never go to via the airlines. A couple of summers ago we were looking to escape the season's humidity in this part of the world, so we looked north. After study-ing maps and checking the Internet, we headed to the Finger Lakes region of New York. After only a couple of hours in the Cessna we were in a different world, greeted by cooler temperatures and the lush shores of countless lakes. Inexpensive hotel rooms and restaurants abounded. The people were friendly and accommodating. It was a memorable weekend.

Likewise, I've flown to friendly islands on Lake Erie that I had never even heard of except through friends who are pilots. You won't find a lot of slick brochures and travel-agent advice leading you to places like Put-in-Bay and Kellys Island, but land on those island runways once and you'll want to go back again. Folks in such communities understand and appreciate airplanes because they and the ferries are lifelines to the mainland. As a pilot, you will be welcomed with open arms.

Some pilots worry about the logistics and costs of ground transportation once they arrive at the destination. First of all, you need to recognize that if this is a destination that you would otherwise travel to on the airlines, you would also face rental car costs and logistics. On many islands, whether on Lake Erie or in the Bahamas, there is little need for transportation once you reach your hotel, so go for a cab. Call the FBO before you arrive. Many can recommend low-cost rental cars, or they may even provide a courtesy car if you are there only overnight. Go for the discounts and get a small car, which is all you will probably need if your trip is short. On one trip, our destination was Sanibel Island, Florida. We landed at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. There we rented a tiny three-cylinder Geo Metro, which turn-ed out to be a good choice for the island's narrow roads. After three days of touring, we put four gallons of gas in it and paid only $40 after applying the AOPA discount.

For the ultimate low-cost general aviation adventure, consider camping. Last fall, we purchased a new tent on sale after the season. That, with some camping gear received as Christmas gifts, has us pretty well set to try camping by airplane this summer. AOPA's Airport Directory is available on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/members/airports/). There you can easily locate airports that permit camping. With two small children to entertain, we'll probably go for the well-equipped campgrounds rather than a desolate airport somewhere, but it still promises to be a new and memorable experience. Some states, such as Arizona and Idaho, go out of their way to offer excellent camping facilities for pilots (see " Camping Under a Wing," August 1997 Pilot).

Regardless of the type of aircraft that you own or rent or the type of activities that you like, flying opens hundreds of new destinations and opportunities — and all of the fun of planning it yourself on rainy winter days.