Air Travel Lessons from the Pandemic

When it comes to my trips, I’m a planner. I’ve gone on at length in other posts about the way that I approach new cities and the way I plan out my trips. The experiences of the last three months have led me to rethink a few of my previously held stances about travel.

Never again will I book my flight more than 60 days before the trip: In the past, I have usually tried to get my flights about three months before I actually want to travel- having them booked relieves the mental stress of a hanging to-do list item, and getting them done early helps to get a good price on the ticket. Or at least that’s how it used to be.

The conventional wisdom used to be that the best prices on flights are usually found about 70 days before a flight and that the best booking window is 21 to 121 days before your flight date. If you wait until the last minute, flight prices are often hugely inflated, and if you get them too early, they can be just as bad.

When Covid-19 hit, my plans started to disappear and I was left with a need to cancel five separate trips out of state- that meant I had to cancel flights with JetBlue, American Airlines, Delta, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and Frontier Airlines. I will never again buy my flight more than a month out- there’s just too much uncertainty, and having to cancel a flight is a giant pain in the ass. This leads me to the next lesson-

Never again will I use an all-in-one travel planning site: I have been an Expedia.com user since some time in 2001. I’ve used it for countless flights and hotels, using various airlines throughout the last eighteen years. I always felt like it was useful to have the web equivalent of a travel agent, and it worked well for me until it didn’t. The mass cancellation of all of those flights is where Expedia fell apart.

It was nearly impossible at first to reach an actual customer service representative, and when they finally started to get their response organized it was still clunky and hard to get a response.

JetBlue was the easiest to deal with- I was able to go directly to them and they canceled my flight and put a credit in their “Travel Bank.” Nice and easy. Several of the others wouldn’t talk to me directly though- if you book through an agent or a site like Expedia or Travelocity, a lot of the airlines will make you go back to that site to deal with any flight changes.

To my vast and unending surprise, the first airline to just do the right thing and give me back my money was Spirit Airlines. The cancellation with them was fully refunded, with a minimum of fuss. I was expecting more difficulty there, and their goodwill has guaranteed that I will use them again if the route I need is there.

Alaska Airlines also gave me a refund, once I called them and spoke to a customer service representative. They were very classy to me.

The other three allowed me to cancel flights, but only gave me credits. This is where the real lesson begins.

I have a long-standing relationship with Delta, and I’ve always enjoyed flying with them, but this experience has put me off of them a bit. For one thing, I haven’t been able to reach a person in weeks. For another, my Expedia flights resulted in airline credits, but those credits aren’t visible in my Delta account. If the credits from all those canceled flights lived in my Delta Skymiles account, I would be sanguine. They don’t, though. They live in Expedia. This is a problem.

The Expedia site is garbage. Up until a few days ago, there was absolutely no place on Expedia to even see a credit. Now you can see it on a per-trip basis, but there’s still no obvious list of them- if you don’t know you have a credit, you’ll never get a notification that you do. And you can’t use Expedia airline credits while booking on their site, you have to call their call center to use your credits. I’m not looking forward to that at all.

American Airlines is the same way- a credit, living somewhere in the Expedia system, that I will have to call in to use when booking a new flight with the same airline.

Frontier Airlines is the last of them, and Frontier gets all of my rage. All of it. The first time I called in, I only had to wait about forty minutes to reach a customer service representative. She initially said that I would have an airline credit, good until September of 2021, but that I would have to re-book within 90 days.

This is a problem because the event that I was attending via a Frontier flight is canceled, not rescheduled. None of my regular travel goes on Frontier routes, and I’m certainly not going to have more travel plans to coordinate with them in the next 90 days. I told the customer service rep this, and she said that she would get me a refund. She said she would route my information to another department to get the refund processed.

I now know that the Frontier Airlines customer service representative lied.

I know this because after a few weeks went by, I tried to call again. This time, it took me more than ninety minutes to get to a rep. He took my basic information, asked to place me on a “brief hold,” and that was the last I heard from him. I had roughly ten minutes of dead silence, and then the hold music came back and I was on for another twenty-five minutes, before I was suddenly disconnected from the call.

For my third attempt to reach someone helpful, I went the Twitter route, speaking to https://twitter.com/FrontierCare, who took more than two days for the first response. I explained my situation, and they said my reservation does not qualify for a refund. I repeated my explanation that the credit was useless to me, and a full two hours later repeated the “booked in 90 days, good until September 2021” bit.

So yeah, Frontier Airlines is going to keep my money, and will provide me no service for it. If they had said all along that they would not give me a refund, I would not have been angry, but the first customer service representative said I would have a refund. Either she lied through her teeth, or the next person I spoke to did. This is shitty customer service, and they’ve guaranteed that I will never fly with them or recommend them to anyone else I know. They can still save their relationship with me by doing the right thing, but they don’t seem willing to, and I’m not feeling up to spending another few hours of my life trying to get them to change their minds.

I have a long memory, Frontier, and I travel a lot. Just not with you.

I’m sure that I’ll still have new lessons from Covid-19 in the future. After all, most of my favorite things involve travel and the entertainment and travel industries are still changing and adapting to life with a pandemic. For now, I’ll leave you with this summary, the three main lessons I have learned from this experience:

  1. Don’t book early. Just don’t. Wait until no less than thirty days from your travel date to get your airfare. You might have to pay a little more, but it’s less expensive than having an airline just keep your money without ever flying you anywhere.
  2. Book directly with the airlines, not through a site like Expedia or Travelocity. If something goes wrong, it’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with the airline directly than with a giant nebulous glob like Expedia. At this point in time, I’ve got a bunch of airline credits that I can ONLY use if I book through Expedia during a phone call. Once those credits are gone from Expedia, so am I.
  3. Never fly Frontier Airlines. They suck. They have earned a spiteful place in my heart for taking my money without a usable service.

Have you learned any lessons from living through a global pandemic?

20/52

This weekend, in Titusville.

Despite living in South Florida for most of my life, I never managed to drive up to Cape Canaveral for a shuttle launch. When I saw that SpaceX and NASA were launching astronauts into space from Florida again, I thought it might be a good time to finally see a launch. Since I live in Orlando, the Cape is right around forty minutes away by car, so I took a half-day from work on Wednesday to go see the launch with some friends.

The first thing I was not expecting was just how bad the traffic would be for the crowds going into Titusville. It took more than 90 minutes to make that forty-minute drive, and when we got out of the car to move to a place where we could see the launch, they halted the countdown because of weather.

Such is life in Florida.

The first backup launch window was Saturday, so we tried again. This time we set out with a wider time window before the launch. We arrived in downtown Titusville and found parking with about three hours until the launch, so we grabbed a quick fast food lunch, and took a quick walk through Space View Park, which has some really neat stuff to read and see.

Space View Park, Titusville, looking east toward the launch site.

A short while later, we met up with another group of friends at Playalinda Brewing Company for a tasty drink before we went to sit and wait for the launch.

Downtown Titusville is super cute.

There were already people setting up with canopies and blankets and folding chairs, none of which it occurred to us to bring. It alternated between cloudy, raining, and sunny, and about fifteen minutes before the launch we moved to a closer vantage point, even though it was in a very thick crowd.

I took some video of the launch, but trust me when I tell you that the more official video is significantly better. Seriously, check out the first few minutes of the C-SPAN video:

From where we stood, roughly twelve miles due west of launch pad 39A, Crew Dragon was a tiny dot atop a column of fire. After about a minute, the sound reached us- the most incredible rumble of rocketry.

Being present for living history- the first launch of astronauts from American soil since the Shuttle program halted in 2011- was amazing, but seeing the crowd response and hearing that thunderous rocket first-hand, I’m tremendously glad I went to see Bob and Doug heading off to the International Space Station.

I don’t even mind getting sunburned while also simultaneously being rained on. Stupid Florida.

Here’s what it looked like from my perspective:

Did you watch the SpaceX/Nasa Demo-2 launch? What did you think?

19/52

State of the Steven

I did it again. I mentioned my upcoming move in an offhanded comment on Heather’s blog, and she said, “And does this mean you’ve made a decision?? Spill!”

One again, I was absolutely certain that I had talked about this on the blog, but I haven’t. I scrolled back through the last few posts, and when I talked about this in February, I was still thinking about it and I hadn’t locked anything in.

So with that in mind, I thought it would be a nice time to do an overall check-in, a sort of “State of the Steven” post as it were. We’ll start with the topic I already brought up-

I’m moving! I spent a lot of time thinking about the things I mentioned back in February, and I talked the ears off of anyone who would listen about the possibility of a move. Most of the people in closest proximity to me figured out that I was definitely going before I knew it myself.

I did a ton of research, looked at dozens of possible places to live, talked on the phone with one helpful-but-also-standoffish realtor, and took several “virtual tours” of possible apartment buildings. Just a hair under two weeks ago, I signed a lease for an apartment in Arlington, VA, just outside of Washington DC. I have about ten weeks left in Florida then I’m headed up to the new place in August.

map of where I will be living relative to DC
The red pin is approximately where the new apartment is located.

On January 1st, I posted about my theoretical goals for the year, and one of them was blogging more consistently. I’ve obviously let that one slide, so let’s take a quick look at a few of the other biggies:

Health, exercise, and sleep: I started out the year strong on this one, but then we got a pandemic. My access to the treadmill went away. Grocery shopping involved more and more junk food and beer. All the things that keep me sane like live music and trivia out with my friends went away for more than two months. Time began to lose all meaning, thanks to the stay-at-home orders, and my sleep went off the rails. So overall, I would say this goal could be better.

Travel: Unfortunately, Covid-19 and the stay at home orders have killed this one. I’ve had five trips involving air travel killed so far this year, and one remaining for September is in serious doubt. I’ll probably be going up to DC in late June, partly to collect keys to my new apartment and partly because the planned Seattle trip with my sister got squashed and we’re trying to make up for it with a smaller East Coast city-hop. We have to wait for touristy things to open though; if we went now we wouldn’t be able to do anything.

Live Music: This is an utter failure, again because of the pandemic. I’ve honestly lost count of how many shows have been canceled, postponed, or rescheduled, but it’s more than twenty so far. The picture to the right is the little whiteboard in my office. The left column is cancellations and it’s only shorter than the other column because I erase shows once a refund is received. The right column is any show that’s been postponed but hasn’t said anything else about the status. If a show gets rescheduled, I’ll either erase it from the right column or move it to the left, pending a refund. I’ve given this WAY too much thought.

And some of the smaller goals from the January 1st post-

  • See more Shakespeare – I watched a little on YouTube, but the pandemic has put a kibosh in this one. Still, there’s a great Shakespeare theater in DC, so I’m optimistic for the future.
  • Make a decision about moving – Finally, a goal that I can actually say is DONE. All that’s left now are the move itself, the acclimating to a new city, and so forth.
  • More decluttering – I’ve actually done a heap of this in preparation for my move- I got rid of the kitchen stools I never sit in, the second television I don’t need, some other small furniture items, and a few odds and ends. I still have way more than I really want to bring for an interstate move, but hey, it’s a start.

How’re you doing so far this year?

18/52

The London Film Museum

My previous post about London led to a conversation with a friend about London, and I wanted to look at the pictures I posted in my blog post about the London Film Museum. When I went to look for the post, I discovered to my vast surprise that I never wrote a post about the London Film Museum, I only wrote a paragraph in one of my previous London posts. In August of 2012, I said the following in a longer post about London:

I quite enjoyed the London Film Museum, which had a lot of neat stuff, including Daleks, a TARDIS, the superman suit from Superman Returns, the Batman Begins batsuit, and a large variety of props from other movies.  There was an entire room of Harry Potter stuff, and a large exhibit dedicated to Ray Harryhausen, including a full sized original Bubo.  This was a highlight for me.

That’s it- just that one paragraph. All the pictures I took at the museum, which I thought I had posted years ago, were still unshared. I will now correct that oversight.

When I visited the London Film Museum, it was in a section of County Hall, right near Westminster Bridge, close to the London Eye along the Thames River. I have since learned that it moved to a location in Covent Garden in April of 2012- my visit was in July of 2012, so I suspect the museum was still moving, and I saw only a fraction of the entire exhibit. What I did see was pretty dang cool though.

Harry Potter props and costumes- A variety of items were present here, including some costumes, the Tri-Wizard cup, and Harry’s Nimbus 2000.

Star Wars stuff – London is the home of Pinewood Studios, which has been a production facility for most of the Star Wars films. There were a few Star Wars artifacts on hand during my visit. I saw much more at the Star Wars exhibit in Tokyo a few years later.

Alien – They had a sculpture of a Xenomorph and some facehuggers from the Alien franchise.

Doctor Who – A film museum in England would naturally have some Doctor Who items. Not as much as the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff, but still- a Tardis and a handful of Daleks were still neat to see.

Superman and Batman – Pinewood has a long history with DC Comics, and there weer a number of Superman and Batman artifacts on hand. First up, some costumes!

Next, we have part of the ship that brought Kal to earth in Superman (1978) and a newspaper from Superman II.

Braveheart, Hellraiser, and various animation – The Dangermouse cardboard stand was my favorite in this part.

The Ray Harryhausen Exhibit – This was my favorite part, to be honest- they had a special exhibit in plae called “Ray Harryhausen: Myths and Legends.” It contained various items from Harryhausen’s stop-motion work, but I was most interested in the Clash of the Titans items, particularly the full-sized Bubo the Owl!

Have you ever been to a film museum? What’s your favorite prop that you’ve seen in person?

17/52

Ancient Ruminations on London

I have been slowly going through the old posts on my ancient LiveJournal, deleting most and saving some as pdf. There are a few, the rarest of posts, that are worth preserving, so I’ve been adapting or revising them to bring forward to this blog.

One such post was my answer to a question-meme, “If you won a trip to anywhere, where would you go, and why?” While I travel quite often now, that was not so when I wrote this on LiveJournal. This particular LJ post was written before I had ever been to Europe.

Anyone who’s known me for more than a week knows that I want to go to England more than any other destination; <lj user=’raptorgirl’> even gave me a London travel book a few years back as a birthday gift, The Irrevent Guide To London. I just need a travel buddy and a little lead time to put together the money and the vacation request.

It’s true, I used to go on and on about London. By the time I lived overseas, the money and vacation time was no longer a hindrance to going, and I realized pretty quickly that if I kept waiting for a travel buddy, I would never make it anywhere. So, I started traveling alone. And before long, I took that first trip to London- the first of many. By the time I finally made it to the UK, “The Irreverent Guide To London” was wildly out of date, but it was still a fun read. (And for those who aren’t hip to the LJ lingo, raptorgirl is the LiveJournal username of Vanessa, a dear friend here in Orlando. I met her originally when we were both students at the University of Central Florida, and it feels really weird that we’ve known each other now for more than two decades.)

I want to ride the London Eye. I want to see Stonehenge. I want to visit Stratford-on-Avon. I want to see that giant odd looking tower in Cardiff that figures so heavily in the early seasons of Torchwood. I want to see a show in Picadilly. I want to get drunk and lie in a field in Cambridge. I want to ride the Tube and mind the gap. I want to visit a very particular grave in Highgate Cemetary in London. Years of watching British television and reading British authors have given me a laundry list of things to do and see.

I’ve actually decided that I’m going to get there before I turn forty- that gives me just over a year and a half to get my shit together.

I’d like to see other parts of the world too, but that can all wait. London first.

All in all, I did pretty well on this list- In my first trip to London, I managed to ride the London Eye. (And again on a subsequent trip.). I took a day trip from Paddington Station to Salisbury to see Stonehenge. I went to Cardiff with one of my best friends on a subsequent trip to see Roald Dahl Plass, which was used for establishing shots as the Torchwood Hub. (Today is that friend’s birthday, actually- Happy birthday, Lorrie!) We went to the Doctor Who Experience on the same trip- alas, the. DWE has since closed. I’ve watched three different shows in Picadilly. I went to that grave in Highgate. I rode the Tube and minded the Gap. And I did so, so much more.

I didn’t get to go lie in a field in Cambridge, but maybe I’ll manage to do that after this pandemic wraps up. And while I still haven’t made it to Stratford-on-Avon, I did tour the Globe Theater in London, so maybe that’s close enough?

While I was wrong about the sequence – I was living in Germany before I ever made it to London- I did manage to see London before the deadline. Just barely. My first trip there was the summer before I turned forty. I’ve been back a couple of times since though, and there’s always more to see.

After seeing 28 different countries away from home, London is still my favorite place to visit in all the world. I miss it. I hope I can get back there sometime soon.

If you won a trip to anywhere, where would you go, and why?

16/52