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?

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Currency

One amusing side-effect of traveling the way that I do, is that after a while, your junk drawer starts to look a little bit like Doc Brown’s binder of different currencies from Back To The Future 2.

currency1

Most of the places I travel are on the Euro, but not all of them.  The amount of Czech Crowns I have left would barely buy a glass of beer here, but I store it because at some point, I’ll be back in Prague.  I try to use up my currency before I leave, but I don’t always succeed.  I use paper CD sleeves to store them so I can see easily what I’m dealing with.

currency2

What’s the most interesting currency you have put aside?

The Cost Of Travel, Part II: My Year By The Numbers

Ali over at Ali Adventures recently posted about what it cost for her and Andy to travel through Europe for two months, and also what it cost just for their trip to the Netherlands.  This sort of number crunching is always kind of interesting to me, so I wanted to break out some of my own spending.

Before I get into the numbers, I wanted to say this:  I don’t spend a whole lot of money at home.  My rent and utilities are a little more than 20% of my income.   Once I had the basic things I needed for my life here, I stopped buying.  The walls of my apartment are unadorned- I never put up any art or curtains here.  I bought one light fixture for the ceiling but never actually wired it in.    I have a fair amount of gadgetry, but for the most part I live a pretty frugal existence.  I don’t care to spend a lot of money on my residence here because I don’t actually spend much time there outside of the work week. If there’s a chance to be traveling to somewhere new, I’d rather be doing that.

I’ll be paying for this year’s travel well into next year, and I’m OK with that.  Let’s talk numbers.

My tracking is a little less accurate than Ali’s post, for several reasons.  First of all, my banking is spread across both American and German bank accounts, and my statistics come from my use of Mint.com, which is only valid for the US bank accounts.  (I love Mint though-  I never really understood just where my money went until I started using it a few years back.)

Secondly, and far more importantly, a fact of life in Europe is that cash is king.  Outside of hotels and major tourist attractions, American style credit cards are rarely accepted or just don’t work at all.  A tremendous amount of my expenses during travel are paid in cash, so I don’t have that side of things itemized.  What I do have is rather amazing, though.

First, I went to my German bank account and I pulled the totals for two big categories.  The first is payments to eventim.de, the German ticket site that I use to buy my concert tickets.  I only pulled payments for 2013, so this doesn’t include tickets that I bought late last year, like the Leonard Cohen ticket.  It also doesn’t include tickets that I paid cash for, or tickets that someone else picked up, where I paid them back later.  In 2013, I’ve spent at least €110 ($144.99) on concert tickets, but it was more likely two or three times that amount.

Next, I checked out what I’ve spent on Deutsche Bahn tickets so far this year.  Once again, there are times that I paid cash for my tickets, so those numbers won’t show up here.  However, any time I planned a trip in advance, I bought the tickets using my German bank account, so I have that total.  In 2013, I’ve spent at least €932.30 ($1228.86) on train tickets.  The majority of these tickets are at a 50% discount, because I have a BahnCard 50.

Next, I went to Mint.com to pull everything that I’ve categorized as travel in 2013.  This doesn’t include my 2012 travel numbers, which were also sizeable.

twelvemonths

  • $7,826.15 on hotels.  Hotels are by far the largest expense for my travel.  There are one or two hotels that I paid for on my German banking account, but this is most of them.
  • $3,199.39 for air travel.  This does include my upcoming trip to visit the US in November, but it also includes two trips to London and back, one to Paris, and one to Dublin.  If a train trip would be more than about six hours, I consider flying instead.
  • $1,137.85 for rental cars and taxis.  I don’t use rentals or taxis very often in Europe, as I prefer to use public transportation whenever possible-  more than two thirds of this is for my rental car in Florida this November.
  • $442.65 for “travel” and “$377.76 for “Vacation.”  This just proves I need to categorize things better.  These two include tours booked in other cities, as well as things like the Paris Pass.
  • $112.25 for the rail ticket I booked between London and Cardiff for this October.  This number doesn’t include the fees I’ve paid for the Heathrow Express, a train between Heathrow airport and Paddington station in London. Also, as previously stated, this doesn’t include anything from the Deutsche Bahn.

The total on all of this is $13,096.05 from the US banking and $1,373.85 from the German banking.

This means that in 2013 alone, and only 2013, I have spent a grand total of more than $14,469.90 on travel.  And that doesn’t even include cash spending, food, or local public transit passes.

It is possible to travel at much lower costs than this, of course-  hostels, couch-surfing, and cheaper hotel alternatives are everywhere.  Many cities have free tours that don’t cost what I spend on Skip-The-Line tours  from Viator.com.

The thing is, I don’t care to travel more frugally.  My time in Europe is finite-  I won’t be out here forever.  In another fourteen months, I’ll be back in the US.  Once I’m back within those borders, it will be a while before I travel internationally again:  there’s still too much I want to see within the United States.

While I’m here, though, I’m making the most of it.  I want to see everything.  Here, let Buzzfeed chime in on this:

How much do you spend a year on travel?  Do you ever regret the expense?