Friday, June 5, 2009

On the phone with the airlines

Why is it that we have to play by the rules on the airlines (sit here, don't use this, use this, don't carry on this liquid, wait for the rich people to get off the plane first, &c.) but they seem to think they can play by whatever rules they do—or don't—want to? Ah, the questions of the universe.

Case in point:

After an exhausting trip to ski in Colorado last June in which United Airlines was responsible for about six hours of delays, I sweet-talked my way in to a $125 voucher. (I also got the rental car for free since they'd given us a bald tire that went flat halfway to Gunnison). They were up in a week and I am planning a trip to Chicago, and since the choices to get there are eight hours by train (once a day), seven by car or, uh, one and a half by plane, and I had this voucher sitting around, and fares are pretty cheap, I decided to use it.

Now, I work for a car sharing organization and when we issue a credit when we screw up, it's a credit. It's good forever and it is automatically applied to your next invoice. We are apologetic, and we try to make good. The airlines, on the other hand …

Now, the voucher is actually two vouchers, one for $100 and one for $25, and I can't use them on the same reservation. The total round-trip would have been about $156, minus the $100 voucher, it would have been $56. That's not too shabby, and I'd have let the $25 voucher expire. But, the fare broke down as $104 on the outbound and $59 on the inbound as one-ways. So I went to use both vouchers. The return was easy, $59-$25=$35. The outbound, not so much.

No matter which fare I picked, I got a message that the fare was not eligible for the voucher. I called United. The reservations lady was nice and American, but unhelpful. She then threw me to customer relations, a lady in India. She looked at the reservation, and with an Indian accent garbled by the VOIP and cell connection, told me that "if I looked at the fine print of the voucher, I'd find that the voucher was not eligible for fares of less than the voucher." I asked where in the voucher. She told me that I should read it, because I'd find it. I asked to speak to a supervisor.

So, on comes another Indian lady, with a similar accent. Yes, sir, no, sir, I am sorry, sir, but that is not eligible. "Where does it say that, I asked?" And she said it was somewhere. At which point I proceeded to read the entire document to her, over the phone, until I got to rule 46:

Residual Value of Certificate/Discount: When the discount certificate amount is greater than the cost of the ticket, the difference will be forfeited.

So, I asked, if you had a rule disallowing it from being used on flights under its value, why would you have this rule? Would that make any sense? She demurred. Something about taxes. I'll pay the taxes. Hold. Now, hold music on United is Rhapsody in Blue, separated by United infomercials. "Do you know that we will charge you an arm and a leg to make a reservation over the phone!" Then more Gershwin.

Finally, she responded. Yes, sir, we will sell you the ticket for $10, applying the voucher and forfeiting the rest. Good, done. More hold. Disconnection. No confirmation email. It was midnight, so I went to bed.

In the morning, I called up again. "Hi, I went through this whole rigmarole last night and want to make sure that I don't have to do it again, please!" The nice Indian lady, on a better connection, looked up the reservation, which had been made, and resent the confirmation. Total length of the phone calls: about 45 minutes (can it really be worth their time?). Round in the time I spent on the internet, and it's just about an hour. That I'm never getting back.

Here, in very small font, are the applicable rules:


Permitted Travel Area: You must begin your travel in the 50 United States, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and fly to a destination within the 50 United States, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands or Canada.

Discount Amount: $100 off a qualifying round-trip itinerary purchased at The discount applies only to the base fare, and not to any taxes, fees or surcharges, including, but not limited to Passenger Facility Charges (PFCs), departure and arrival taxes and carrier-imposed surcharges. The total price shown on for qualifying itineraries will comprise the discounted base fare and all applicable taxes, fees and surcharges.

Eligibility Restrictions: This discount may only be applied to the purchase of one new ticket and may not be applied to a previously issued ticket.

Valid Carrier: United, United Express®, and TedSM, flights. It is not valid on any other flights operated by other airlines, such as United-Marketed code share and Star Alliance Flights.

Ticketing Dates: valid for 1 year from the date of this letter

Travel Dates: based on the rules of the fare ticketed

Blackout Dates: none

Advance Purchase: per rule of fare purchased

Min/Max Stay Requirements: Min Stay: per rule of fare purchased, whichever is longer; Max Stay: per rule of fare purchased.

10. Valid Routing: Roundtrip or one way only. Circle trips, or trips with multi- city itineraries are not permitted. You must follow a permitted routing.

Stopovers: Not permitted.

Qualifying Fares: This discount may be used on any published United First® class, United Business® class or United Economy® class fares.

Additional Taxes and Fees: All taxes, fees and carrier imposed surcharges are additional.

Restricted Fares: This discount may not be used on the following fares:, companion, travel industry G class, contract, bulk, convention, tour conductor, children, family plan, government, group, military, tour basing, senior discount, student, youth, infant, industry travel agency or employee discount, Around the World, Circle the Pacific, Visit USA, or any non published fares.

Fare Rules: All rules of the fare purchased apply. Reservations and ticket purchases on must be completed simultaneously. The published fare you qualify for depends on what class of service is available on the days you travel. Not all flights are eligible for an e-certificate discount. In some instances you may find flights that are not e-certificate eligible because they have already been discounted, and are less expensive than the e-certificate eligible flights.

Combinability: Not combinable with any other discount offers.

Maximum number of users per certificate: One.

Maximum number of passengers per itinerary: One

Ticketing: You may redeem this e-certificate on Certificate is valid towards a qualifying flight purchased at through 11:59 pm CDT on the last ticket date stated on rule 5. Discount only applies when ticket is purchased within the 50 United States. All dollar levels are stated in U.S. Currency. When using the discount on a ticket purchased in Canada, current conversion rates apply.

Residual Value of Certificate/Discount: When the discount certificate amount is greater than the cost of the ticket, the difference will be forfeited.

Mileage Plus® Accrual: Permitted.

Upgrades: To determine if the fare purchased with this discount allows the use of an upgrade certificate refer to the terms, conditions and booking class restrictions associated with the upgrade type you are using.

Changes: Rules of the fare determine if changes are permitted. If changes are allowed, there may be service charges and fees associated with a change. You will receive the value of the discounted ticket, less any of the aforementioned service charges and/or fees, towards the purchase of a new ticket.

Refunds: This discount is non-refundable, once used the discount will not be reissued for future use. Any refund due is based on the amount actually paid, minus any service fees. The discount may not be applied toward the purchase of another ticket when exchanging or refunding your original ticket, except when the original ticket qualifies for a reduced fare (guaranteed airfare rule applies). Check with United.

Denied Boarding Compensation: Permitted.

Transfer of certificate: This certificate is transferable, but void if sold or bartered. Other restrictions may apply.

Important Notes: The certificate has no cash value and may not be altered, duplicated, sold or bartered. If lost, stolen, expired or destroyed certificates will not be replaced. Only one discount certificate, discount voucher or discount is permitted per ticket. Offer subject to change without notice. Other restrictions may apply.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Minnesota Nice gone awry

I'm in the middle of "ride my bike more miles than I drive my car" month (mainly because in the winter I drive to skiing and in summer one or two hiking weekends completely overwhelms what I can bike the rest of the month) so I headed south today, by bike, to run at Lebanon Hills Park. It's about a 13 mile ride each way, so a good warm up for a run.

So, I got to the park, locked my bike to a highway sign post (perfectly legal) and run a bit in to the woods to stash my bag with my bike shoes, bike gloves, a water bottle, two Clif bars and helmet. By "stash" I mean "clip around a tree" so it wouldn't wander off and be pretty obvious it was left there on purpose. I ran off for an hour around Jensen and O'Brien lakes and returned to the pack to swig some water, and then turned and ran for another 45 minutes over by Shultz Lake and returned to where I'd stashed my bag to leave and—it was gone.

Gone, gone, gone. I retraced my steps—perhaps it was at a different trail junction (it was a few feet off the trail, of course). Nope. I walked around a few times, and then ran back to the trailhead, asking people there if they'd seen anyone with a red backpack. No one had. I grabbed some water and ran back, again looking all around and asking everyone I saw. No one had seen someone walk by with a red pack, although a couple people had seen it in the tree—it was, perhaps, too conspicuous of a hiding spot.

I unlocked my bike and was now traveling with no bike gloves (and after a decade and a half my handle bars are kind of chewed up), nowhere to stash my lock so it was around my stem and frame, which works but is not desirable, and no bike shoes. Oh, and no helmet. Biking is somewhat different when at any time you can fall off and crack your skull open with no protection. Hooray!

As I was leaving, I took a trail map which had the park phone number on it (I'd not brought my cell phone) and cycled over to the visitors center, which I fully expected to be closed. But it wasn't—open until 6:00 on weekends. It was 5:11. I walked in and asked the woman there if anyone had brought in a red backpack. And she did. I told her my sob story and wondered out loud what kind of imbicile would take something that was obviously left short term for lost and she sort of rolled her eyes in agreement. So, now, I had my shoes, snacks, pack, gloves and helmet (I figured the replacement value of these would run over $100) for a safe ride home.

I know that the guy who had hiked a mile with my pack had done it out of the goodness of his heart. He was probably so happy to have his Minnesota Nice good-deed-of-the-day. However, I wasted an hour, which I'm never getting back, looking for it, and threw a fit trying to find it. On the Appalachian Trail this would have never happened, for two reasons. First, unless something was obviously rubbish or obviously lost (say, a guide book dropped on the trail, which you might carry to the next shelter and leave a note), people would assume its owner was coming back soon. And second, no one would go through the trouble of carrying eight or ten pounds two or three miles—that's insane. But, oh, no, in Minnesota, yah know, we have to be nice about this then.

An unrelated observation about biking in the Twin Cities suburbs: it kind of sucks. Now in the cities, don't get me wrong, it's superb. I've only biked urbanly in one other city, Boston, and the Twin Cities put it to shame. Bike lanes galore, wide streets, decent paving and lane markings, signage, facilities, bike racks, all things which Boston sorely lacks. (Although Boston has gone from "worst" to "[one] for the future" in Bicycling Magazine's annual roundup. Minneapolis falls behind the Portland-San Fran-Boulder-Seattle-Chicago winners, perhaps for weather although I am surprised to see Chicago ahead of it; while it is flat and straight, Chicago doesn't seem like a biking mecca.) But in the suburbs, it's flipped. I've done a decent amount of road biking in the Boston Suburbs, and it's quite nice. Bike trails lack (save for the Minuteman) but within about ten miles in several directions, suburbs open in to towns with more conservation land, narrow, shaded roads with little traffic and town functions often clustered in town centers. Plus, if you want to go further, you can take a bike on a train to Fitchburg or Gloucester or Worcester and bike from there.

Here? Well, it's a bit different. There is great biking out there, but you have to go a lot further. To Afton or Minnetonka. And to get there, unless there is a bike trail, is miserable. You are almost assured a lot of time in curvy, disgusting subdivision roads with no shade and no character or pedaling along the side of a four-lane, divided highway with a 55 m.p.h. speed limit and assorted detritus in the breakdown lane. Sure, it's wide and relatively safe, and sometimes there are sidewalks, but it's generally pretty miserable. I can't imagine it in 90 degree weather. And the suburbs here are miserable, subdivisions and strip malls, subdivisions and strip malls, without and end. You have a choice of the highways of doom or winding your way through a subdivision which may or may not have an outlet. It's not fun.

Finally, there are some great parks around the Twin Cities—within an hour I'd put it on par with Boston—but with the exception of Wirth and Battle Creek, it is impossible to get to them without a car. I don't mind Wirth and Battle Creek, but I'd been to them a lot, and without driving, I was almost SOL. In Boston one could ride a half-hourly bus from Ashmont to the Blue Hills, the Orange Line to Middlesex Fells, and trains to various parks and forests (Estabrook, Wompatuck, &c.) further afield. Last year my boss rode a bike to camp at Carver Park in Carver County. It was only 30 miles—and they wound up carrying their bikes through the field at the end. Needless to say, cyclists were in the minority.

Oh! And, on the way home I got cut off by a guy who just had to go around me and turn in front of me in to a highway entrance. So I went to take a drink of water (once I'd slowed enough to be safe) and, what do you know, my water bottle slid out of my hand, across his back window, and on to the pavement in front of me. I picked it up and continued on my way, looking back for a silver Taurus coming to run me off the road, although he would have had to backtrack four miles from the next exit, so I thought this unlikely.