Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Some lessons and horror stories from an experienced traveler

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and/or (if you don’t celebrate) is otherwise enjoying the holiday season. Myself I almost never made it home to be with my family for the holidays! So I thought I would sure some lessons I learned earlier this week.

This past week I was spending some time in Champaign, Illinois. It is a university town (the University of Illinois there is about the size of the University of Toronto) about two hours outside Chicago. I flew on Air Miles, and as it was the same amount of points to fly directly to Champaign as it was to fly to Chicago (and then just take the bus from Chicago to Champaign) as I usually do, I opted for the Champaign via Chicago flight option to get the most bang for my hard earned points. The added bonus was that it would also easily save me at least two hours in travel time (it’s only a 45 minute flight from Chicago to Champaign and the lay-over is usually only an hour or two at most) and definitely get me in Champaign much earlier (as I wouldn’t have to go into downtown Chicago and then wait a couple hours for the Greyhound that takes another 2.5 hours to Champaign)..I know O’Hare has a nasty record as an airport: busy, congested, flight delays and cancellations all the time. Recently I heard they also laid off a bunch of employees which has also caused delays. But alas, O’Hare didn’t cause me near as many problems, as did Willard Airport in Champaign! In total, it took seven, yes SEVEN flights (there were six earlier flights I was scheduled on, all CANCELLED!) to get me back home finally over 2 days later than I had planned. I didn’t even end up leaving flying from Champaign in order to assure my return home for Christmas. As I vent some highlights of my journey to you, I’ll give you some pointers I learned from this winter experience. In the end, my seventh flight was 2.5 h delayed (from O’Hare) but I got home in time for the family time, which was much relief after a lot of hassles. Anyways this isn't the first time I've experienced such hassles and probably won't be the last, so I thought I would share some lessons with you all that I've learned for my travelling experiences.

1) When it’s a mechanical issue, as it was the first time I was supposed to fly, air line companies are very nice and try to do whatever they can. We were offered hotels, shuttles to O’Hare, taxi rides back to the city, and if possible, the option to fly on other airlines that would get us to our destination.

2) When your flight cancellation or delay is due to weather (as it was the next four times), airlines do nothing for you. It’s not your fault you can’t get on the plane, but it’s not theirs either they say! This time, those of us in this situation were offered nothing, no taxis, shuttles, hotels or other flights. We were on our own. I complained that the whole reason why I was there was due to the previous day’s cancellation which was due to mechanical issues, and that they should have at least made me come out even by paying for my taxis to and from the airport. When I proved to them that I had not enough money to pay for my own cab back into town, they broke the ‘rules’ and gave me my taxi. However, I highly doubt if I had needed a hotel they would have covered this.

3) On my sixth attempt, I was bumped from my flight. The issue: “Not enough fuel” to support the amount of weight of the people and their luggage that were booked for the flight. People were asked to volunteer and go on the next flight for a $250 flight voucher. I was bumped because I was one of the last people to check in. I explained to them that I booked my taxi from the company that they have a contract with (they only gave me vouchers for that one so I had no choice), and that I was supposed to be there much earlier. The reason for my late check in then thought was that my taxi shuttle decided (to save money most likely) to combine my pick up with the pilot’s pick up and we just happened to be on the opposite side of town. If not for the pilot/stewardess pick up I would have easily been one of the people on the flight. So again, I blame this on them and their choice of shuttle contractor.As I informed them that this was my sixth flight being cancelled, it was pretty petty for them to bump me knowing I would show up, and that they were not intending to offer me anything for my bump except to put me on the next flight out. They wouldn’t even give me the option of taking a $250 flight voucher that they were offering to other “volunteers” because I was apparently a late check in and that they thought that them putting me on the next flight going was compensation enough.

I certainly didn’t even want to chance waiting for the next flight out of Champaign, as the weather was very moody that day (which is also why no one else volunteered to give up their seat). So after ranting about all this, they gave me a $250 flight voucher and paid a direct shuttle to O’Hare ($50 US), as I knew flights were still more capable to leave from there than were the small regional planes from Champaign (the Chicago-Toronto plane is always at least 3-4 times bigger than the Champaign-Chicago planes). So eventually I got to O’Hare but just to go with the trend of how things went the past couple days, my flight there was delayed 2.5 hours so I didn’t get to Toronto till 2 AM on Dec. 23rd (The original bookings before all the cancellations was to get in at 8 PM on Dec. 20th).

FYI: If not enough people ‘volunteer’ to give up their seat when it is asked for $250, the randomly selected people will only be given $100. So in good weather when you know the next flight will make it out, I say go for it. In my case, the weather for anyone to volunteer was too risky after so many flights for the previous days were cancelled.

4) If you are flying on a small plane or to a small regional airport such as Champaign, then don't be surprised if even minor weather problems (e.g., a bit of fog or light snow) cancels your flight. If you really need to get home in a hurry, have a back-up plan in place for how you can get to the place where your flight connects. If there is a shuttle service to get you there, then try as hard as you can to get the airline that cancelled your flight to pay for it to take you there in time for your next flight.

5) From my limited experience with two shuttle rides with pilots and stewardesses, any stereotypes might just have a grain of truth to them. I was shocked to hear the stories that they were talking about. I was surprised they were so freely speaking with a passenger in the shuttle wit them. I later found that they thought I was a stewardess with another company and that was why they were so ‘unprofessional’. The pilot, upon learning this, apologized for his candour.

6) After check in, you can only go on stand by for an earlier flight if a) you have all your baggage with you (no checked luggage) and/or b) if you make your standby request well over 40 minutes before the flight you want is scheduled to board (so they can try to change your bags to the earlier flight).

7) In addition to mechanical problems, other times that airlines will be nice to you is when it involves such issues as fuel and weight and when the flight has been over booked.

8) Going further back in time, I was also on a previous flight which demanded to take my laptop bag from me at the entrance door to the plane (along with several other passenger’s carry on bags). I presumed because they were going to store the carry on luggage in a designated area in the plane as it was a much smaller plane and there was no room for my carry-on. When I got off the plane, I realized they had put the carry on luggage right beside the door. I felt compelled to check my laptop: yes it was smashed. I later learned that due to the size of the plane, they put people’s carry on items below. I was told I was out of luck because it was an electronic item, and if it were clothes etc lost or damaged, they would have covered it. I persisted as I was shocked they would do this for what obviously was an expensive laptop. The big airline didn’t take responsibility, as they sub-contracted other airlines to fly for them on regional routes (like out of Champaign like this particularly flight was). I was then informed I should have taken out all items in my bag and held them in my lap for the flight. Right, thanks for the head up after the flight. Makes me wonder how much other stuff from other people got damaged (as I wasn’t the only one who’s laptop bag was taken and put below). Three months later, after a lot of frustration and persistence, I got a cheque for the repairs of my laptop from the sub-contracted airline.

FYI: Demand on keeping all personal breakable items with you. If you did have something valuable checked under the plane and you have a connecting flight, check the condition of it (things checked under the plane at boarding rather than at the ticket couner get given to you right when get off) before you board your next flight. You need to know when the damage occurred so you know which plane (and which company) to blame (as the American Airlines have several sub-contracted planes).

9) You can bring more than the 3 ounce limit of liquid with you on a flight. But only if you need it (e.g., medication or things such as Pepto-Bismol).

10) If you book on points (Aeroplan, Air Miles, etc…) and miss your flight, they will almost always set you up with the next flight free or charge or points.

11) If you are going to the U.S. for an extended stay (like more than a week) on a one-way ticket, make sure you buy your return ticket BEFORE you leave. Otherwise, U.S. customs officials will take your fingerprints and photograph and treat you like a criminal and extensively interrograte you and refuse to accept all rational explanations (having a 12 month lease, a full-time job, etc..) as to why you will obviously still be returning to Canada). If you don't comply they won't let you fly period. I would say these guys have been given too much power to do whatever they want since 9/11 (technically finger prints should not be required of Canadian citizens travelling to the U.S. unless they are registered students over there or work there under a green card), but save yourself the hassles, just make sure you don't travel one-way to the U.S. without a ticket back already purchased.

If I remember any others, I’ll update this post.

Stay tuned for a year-end blogging bonanza of posts over the next 2-3 days as I get back into more regular blogging habits again.

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Saskboy said...

Excellent list!
I share your experience with flight crews, as I heard one in Nova Scotia talking about cheating on the boyfriend back in Toronto.

I also got some light questioning when I traveled to the US in '03 with my passport and a little cash and mostly just my Visa card. They didn't ask about my bus ticket which was already purchased and good for getting me home, but realized I guess that I wasn't going to be a long term loafer.