I have written a number of articles over the years about my life as a retired Federal employee, including quite a few on travel. This is another travel article, although it takes a bit different approach from most of the previous ones. (See, for example, How One Former Federal Employee Enjoys Retirement and From Rio to Barcelona: The Travel of One Federal Retiree)
In this one, I will discuss experiences with specific travel-related companies, lessons learned, and my approach in addressing less than satisfactory travel experiences. As with supervision, virtually all of my travel knowledge has been acquired the hard way. From that perspective, I hope to spare readers from some of the foolish things I have done to myself (and others) in the name of frugality, and to provide some travel tips that have worked for me.
I will start by expressing my belief that travelers are generally better off focusing on a small number of travel-related companies than, for example, patronizing multiple airlines, hotel chains and car rental companies. We have found that there are huge differences between the way major airlines, hotels, and other travel-related companies treat their most prized customers and less frequent users of their services.
I managed to rack up enough miles among Continental Airlines and its partners to have earned and maintained “OnePass Elite” status for a number of years. The two top levels were “Gold” and “Silver;” I never made it above the “Bronze” level, but that was good enough to get free checked baggage, priority seating and, best of all, courtesy upgrades on a space available basis. One of the great travel surprises is sitting in coach prior to takeoff and suddenly having your name called and being escorted up to the First Class section, featuring, at a minimum, extra legroom, food, and
Kahlua on the rocks.
But Continental unexpectedly reduced its daily departures from Denver from several hundred a day to as few as a dozen after Denver International Airport was opened and charged higher landing fees than had its predecessor, Stapleton. That, combined with the fact that we and two other couples were flying from Denver to Sydney, Australia, to begin a cruise to Auckland, New Zealand, convinced me to shift my focus to United Airline’s MileagePlus frequent flier program. That decision paid off, in that I logged more than 50,000 actual flying miles that year, enough to earn “Premier Executive” status.
I received such benefits as periodic upgrade certificates; no charges for checking up to three bags, each weighing up to 75 pounds; a special 800 number for reservations, MileagePlus customer service, and customer relations e-mail; automatic placement in Economy Plus seating at no charge; and the opportunity to reserve exit row seats via United.com. My 6’ 3” frame comes complete with exceptionally long legs, so I need every bit of space in front of me that I can get, and only Premier Executives and above can reserve exit row seats. In addition, United, which is merging with Continental, last year adopted Continental’s fine idea of upgrading Premier passengers to First or Business Class whenever there is space available.
Having been thoroughly spoiled for years, I was in for a rude awakening when my Premier Executive status expired at the end of January, after several deaths in the family and some medical issues kept me well short of the required 50,000-mile mark. I didn’t even make it to the 25,000 miles required to be a Premier member. The net result: I fell from grace and have had to pay for Economy Plus seating and for checked baggage. And when there was no space available in Economy Plus, I have had to lock my knees into the seatback in front of me, in an attempt to prevent that passenger from fully reclining the seat, since there’s nowhere else for my legs to go. Sometimes they think their seat mechanism is broken, and keep slamming the seat back, but once I establish position, I don’t move my knees an inch until they give up.
The scars those episodes left on my fragile psyche forced me to throw myself on the mercy of United, pleading for a one-year restoration of my Premier Executive status based on history and last year’s unusual circumstances. The MileagePlus customer relations staff is still pondering that request as I write this article, so, while I was hoping to be able to praise United in this article for its generosity, the jury is still out. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, the humanity!”
It could have been equally challenging for me on the ground.
My travel schedule fell so far short of normal in 2010 that I also didn’t come within screaming distance of the 75 nights required to maintain my Platinum Elite status with Marriott. However, the company extended that status for another year without being asked. I have to assume it was because we’ve been loyal customers for so long, and because I have a large number of reward points in my account. Whatever the reasons, I am most grateful to Marriott for its collective kindness. Platinum Elite status bestows a variety of benefits, including 48-hour guaranteed availability and room type; a room upgrade whenever available; free access to the concierge lounge; and free Internet access, local phone calls and faxes. Many of those benefits are also available to Gold Elite members, who earn that status by spending at least 50 nights at Marriott properties in a calendar year.
I am also a Five Star member of the Hertz #1 Club, which requires at least 10 rentals per calendar year. Hertz typically charges among the highest rates in the industry, but provides such conveniences as bypassing the rental counter and simply finding our name and the parking space of our rental car on the electronic bulletin board. The company’s rental cars are usually in excellent condition, and customer service in the #1 Club Gold booths has generally been above average. Five Star members are entitled to an upgrade, if available. That used to include a Toyota Camry, which was built into my customer profile until Hertz put that model in a different category and applied an upgrade-charge.
The title of this article was partially based on a less than satisfactory experience I had with Hertz out of San Francisco International Airport in May. I’ll spare readers the gory details, skipping to the part when, having returned home, I sent an e-mail to Hertz customer service identifying the problems we had encountered and requesting a partial refund. I received a polite electronic response, expressing sympathy but stating that there was nothing Hertz could do for me. I responded to that e-mail, and was granted a second review – by the same person! To my total lack of surprise, she reached the same conclusion the second time. I don’t give up easily, and found the name and mailing address of Hertz Executive Customer Relations, where I was lucky enough to have my case assigned to Sharon Rose. Ms. Rose promptly sent me an extremely gracious e-mail, apologizing for our whole negative experience and providing a generous credit in resolution of the matter. The bottom line: I’m still renting from Hertz.
One way to avoid travel problems is to plan ahead. I have seen ample evidence of the wisdom of this advice, but I have yet to implement it. My friend, and fellow Federal retiree, John Jones shares my sense of frugality (some dare call us cheap), but he is ridiculously well-organized – he can locate in five minutes his file on our trip to Hawaii in 1988 – and he doesn’t have the procrastination gene. John gets the best deals available every time. Regardless of what they say in the Dos Equis commercials, even the World’s Most Interesting Man can’t do any better. John invariably books trips early, but only after checking his multitude of travel websites. He gets more free flights – he is currently focused on Southwest Airlines and its partners – than anyone I’ve ever seen, and one of these days I think a rental car company will actually pay him to rent one of their cars.
But his true genius (or madness) lies in hotel accommodations. There is simply no way that a hotel chain can beat John. Fortunately for Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt, there are very few, if any, travelers willing to inconvenience themselves as much as John will do for rewards. Otherwise, the major chains would have to change or eliminate many of their promotions and policies, if not their whole frequent guest programs. While they set “elite” levels based on number of nights stayed, they often have promotions in which rewards are tied to the number of stays one gets in – meaning, for example, that a week-long visit to the Hilton Hawaiian Village is worth one stay. John travels extensively, both for business and pleasure, and if he is conducting a five-day training class, he will often change hotels every night to get credit for five separate stays. Sometimes that requires him to drive many miles – in unfamiliar mountains, in winter, at night, through blinding snowstorms. Except for the occasional speeding ticket, no problem.
If you travel as much as John does and I used to, it still makes sense to focus on one major hotel chain, but it can also be useful to stay at one or two other chains enough to be an elite member of their guest programs, particularly since not every place you stay is likely to have Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt properties, for example.
In part two, I will contrast my own haphazard planning style with John’s organized approach, and then try to make myself feel a little better by listing some of the successes I have had in dealing with common travel problems. I will also talk about some of our best and worst travel experiences –fortunately, the good ones have vastly outnumbered the bad ones – and will include personal observations about specific airlines, hotels, and cruise lines.