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

Orlando Airport’s Hidden B-52 Memorial Park

Nestled on the outskirts of Orlando International Airport is a tiny little park, with a great big retired B-52 Stratofortress bomber in it.  This particular B-52 flew missions with the 306th Bomb Wing of what used to be McCoy Air Force Base from 1963 to 1974.  It was retired and set up at this park, the B-52 Memorial Park, which was dedicated in 1985.

Here’s a fun factoid – Did you ever wonder why Orlando’s airport code is MCO instead of ORL or OIA?  It’s because the airport is still using the original FAA airport code from when it was McCoy.

The B-52 Memorial Park is located on Bear Road, just past the North Economy Parking Lot, and if you didn’t know it was there, you might miss it-  it’s set back a little bit from the road.  Once you’re there, it’s pretty hard to miss though, because a B-52 Stratofortress is HUGE.

I had been meaning to check out this park for a while after I learned about it, and I finally managed to stop by to take some pictures last October, after I came back from a quick trip to DC.  I had parked in the North Economy Lot, so this was just around the corner from my car.

I couldn’t resist getting a shot for scale-  even the tires on this plane are huge.  Please ignore the stupid facial expression in this photo.

There are several sidewalks and benches around the plane, as well as an elevated viewing stand that looks directly at the nose of the aircraft.  At the base of the viewing stand, there’s a sign about the park itself.

It’s possible to walk up close to and underneath the aircraft, which is fascinating to me.   I’m still a ten year old boy at heart, and I love airplanes and trains and the like.

There’s also a tiny memorial to the faithful K-9 contingent of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, but it’s also easy to miss if you’re not reading all the signs.  It just looks like a fenced off patch of gravel.

The B-52 Memorial Park is open 7:00 AM  to sunset, and is easily found with the help of Google Maps. It’s also close to the ride-share waiting lot, so you will pass a lot of loitering Uber and Lyft drivers on your way there.

Are there any hidden historical gems close to where you live?

 

Munich Flughafen Besucherpark

Almost every time I’ve gone to or from the Munich airport in the last few years, I’ve used a route that includes a train between Regensburg and Freising, and bus 635 that goes from the Freising Hauptbahnhof to the Munich airport a few times each hour.  One of the stops on bus 635 is the München Flughafen Besucherpark, or Munich Airport Visitor’s Park.  I could see from passing by that it had a bunch of old aircraft to look at, and an observation hill that looked over the airport, and I made a promise to myself to actually stop when I had time, instead of just noticing it on the way to or from the airport.

That opportunity finally struck in July, when I had a ticket to go into Munich to see Sarah from Regensblog in the ESME summer concert.   The show was in the evening, so I set out a little bit earlier in the day.  Instead of taking the train all the way into Munich right away, I stopped in Freising, got on the old 635, and hopped off at the stop for the Besucherpark.

The bus stops are next to the S-Bahn stops, and there’s a little bit of a walk between public transport and the visitor park.  If you drive there, you get to park closer, but you miss out on some of the groovy trail decorations.  I especially like the nod to the Statue of Liberty in this one.

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Getting a little bit closer, there’s a helicopter on a stick!  I wonder if this exhibit is sponsored by a roadside assistance company of some sort… maybe ADAC?  This air rescue helicopter was stationed at the Munich hospital 36 years ago, and was retired here in the visitor’s park.

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This is the bit that got my attention from the bus as it passed by-  the Lockheed L-1049 G Super Constellation.  This is an original Super Constellation from 1955, with Lufthansa’s classic livery colors.  This was the first aircraft to have a pressurized cabin, and it was the first aircraft that Lufthansa used for transatlantic flights.

For a euro, you can go up into the aircraft.

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Passengers had quite a bit more room in the 1950s!

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There are fewer seats than in a modern aircraft, but the space per seat is much greater.

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They left the auto pilot on!

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Next up, there’s a Swissair Douglas DC-3.   This one was closed up when I visited, but the DC-3 has a reputation for being a great cargo plane.

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The Junkers Ju 52 was used for airmail service to South America and for exploration flights in the 1930s.

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This is the back of the Junkers Ju 52, also referred to sometimes as Auntie Ju.  The obseration hill and stairway are visible in the background.

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There were historical broadcasts playing inside the Ju 52, but I didn’t stick around to hear them.

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This is the cockpit of the Junkers Ju 52.  Vintage 1930s technology!

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At the top of the observation hill, you can see all the aircraft from above.  You’ll need another euro to get through the turnstiles at the bottom of the hill.

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From the observation hill, you can also see the entire airport spread out in front of you.  Lots of people brought their kids up here, and there are coin operated telescopes to get a closer view.  I saw one guy with enormous binoculars and a notepad writing down every aircraft type he spotted.  Interesting hobby, I  think.

I watched several aircraft taking off and landing before I climbed back down.

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The Besucherpark is designed to be family friendly.  It even has a pretty good sized play area for the smaller children.

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Naturally, there’s a restaurant and a souvenir shop on the premises.

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The restaurant is named Tante Ju’s, which is the German for Auntie Ju’s, named after the Junkers Ju 52 aircraft pictured above.

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Once I was done at the visitor’s park, I walked back to where I started and took the S-Bahn the rest of the way into the city for a nice burger and a concert.  That’s another story, though.

The Visitor’s Park can be reached by Bus 635 from the airport or Freising, or it can be reached by the Munich S-Bahn (S1 or S8 to Besucherpark, about 40 minutes from the main station.)

The Visitor’s Park and viewing hill are accessible around the clock, year round, and the information center, shop, and historical aircraft have the following hours: March to October, 9:30am-6pm.   November to February, 10am-5pm.   Tante Ju’s Restaurant is open daily 9:30am to 6pm.

And according to the website, there’s minigolf there too, but I never saw it.

Have you ever been to the München Flughafen Besucherpark?

Miami arrival.

This is why I hate Miami International Airport.

On Friday, I landed at around 3:20 in the afternoon.    The passport control line took roughly two minutes.  After two minutes of waiting, the passport control guy apologized to me for the delay-  goodness, I missed American customer service.  I was all the way to the baggage claim a few minutes later.

I spent the next hour waiting for my suitcase to come off the carousel.  I try not to check a bag when I travel for exactly this reason, but I brought beer with me back to the US, and that had to be in a checked bag.  The carousel was spitting out bags for the entire hour-  an Airbus A380 holds a LOT of people.  In Frankfurt, there were three separate jetways going to the A380.  This aircraft is HUGE! But I digress…

After my suitcase finally appeared, the customs line took about four minutes.  It took me another ten or fifteen minutes to get through the little tram-thing that takes you to the rental car center, and then I spent another thirty or forty minutes in line for the rental car.

I hit the road at around 5:20 pm, two hours after my flight landed, and drove directly into Miami rush hour traffic.

Do you have any favorite or least favorite airports?  Do you have any particularly amazing or horrible airport experiences?