Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Travel Mishaps (page 1 of 4)

Flying United always reminds me why I love Delta

One of the pains of living where I do is the fact that United has a monopoly on our tiny regional airport. They offer three daily departures to San Francisco, one to LAX that just started recently, and another to Denver will start next year (SEE: United adds another nonstop destination out of Arcata!).

The convenience of our airport cannot be understated. Even though it is 45 minutes from home, that is much better than a solid 5 hour drive to San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento. But every time I convince myself to try flying United out of Arcata yet again, something goes wrong (or must I bring my kids along to make everything magically go right?).

Why I dislike flying United

I’ve flown United more times than any other airline, and they have cause me the most pain. Nearly half of my United flights to date have either been substantially delayed or outright canceled. While their on-time performance has improved lately, I’ve had enough bad experiences that I will choose not to fly them if timing is critical.

Sure, avoiding a drive to the Bay is nice. But it would also be nice to arrive at my destination on time. And even if it takes me just as long including the drive, at least I have control of the situation. I’d rather hit the road for a few hours than sit at O’Hare with rolling delay updates.

Contrast this with Delta where I’ve experienced a single short delay and a single misconnect. The latter was many years ago and due to a large thunderstorm over Atlanta that caused a good number of planes to either enter a holding pattern or divert. Delta offered me a hotel voucher and meal voucher in that instance. As I was only 16 at the time, offering me a hotel voucher became an impossibility. I spent the night in the terminal. The Delta agent was over-the-top apologetic about the situation and gave me extra meal vouchers.

Contrast that with United, who doesn’t really care if they inconvenience you. When we experienced a 3-hour mechanical delay on Alaska Airlines back in January, the airline proactively sent us a text apologizing for the delay and informing us that they would be sending us a $100 voucher for the inconvenience. The $100 was in excess of the cash value for our tickets (SEE: Turning 20,000 Amex points into 25,000 Alaska miles and $500). This immediately changed my outlook.

With United, they’re just happy if they get you there…someday. Or they’ll send you a survey regarding your experience that deletes everything you’ve entered the moment you click submit. Ok…maybe I’m getting a bit too cynical.

I should mention United has made things somewhat right by handing me a voucher or two over the years when everything goes completely wrong. Usually it’s not for much.

Call me a control freak

One difficult aspect of air travel is that so much is out of your control. It’s nice when things go right. Stepping on a plane in Arcata, making a tight connection in San Francisco, and enjoying a pleasant flight to the east coast while getting some work done is awesome when it happens.

But then there are the times when everything goes wrong. So many times I’ve arrived at the gate just in time for the delay announcement. Or we sit on the apron forever waiting to take off. Or the plane has to turn around and head back to the gate due to some mechanical issue.

In short, I tend to want to have control of travel when possible. And for me, that means flying a carrier other than United. Due to cost, I can’t always justify driving to Sacramento or the Bay Area to fly with another airline for work. But I can justify it when I must be somewhere on time. When feasible, I leave town to catch a Delta flight out of Sacramento. It may be slightly longer. But it is also so much less painful.

My pipe dream is having a direct Delta flight to Salt Lake City once again. I’d choose them whenever possible. Although I’m excited United is adding another nonstop destination next year, I’m still hoping we will one day have a second carrier again.

Getting the Dreaded “Flight Canceled” Notification: What to do now?

A canceled flight is never fun. I’ve had (probably) more than my fair share of them, mostly flying out of Arcata. But they have happened in a couple other situations as well.

The most recent was at the beginning of our trip to Paris and Luxembourg for a week. We were booked on KLM 606 from SFO to Amsterdam. This was not only the cheapest ticket at the time, but it was also operated by a 747. Since I don’t ever want to pass up an opportunity to fly on the “Queen of the Skies”, and the schedule worked well for us, this is what I’d picked for our trip.

While I was half-expecting the connecting flight into Paris Charles de Gaulle to be canceled due to the routine French pilot, crew and air traffic controller strikes, the cancellation of the KLM flight came out of the blue. At least they gave us more than 24 hours notice.

What to do if your flight is canceled

First, don’t panic. In most cases, there are multiple options. In some cases, it might mean some quick and expensive choices, such as when I had to drive to the Bay to catch a flight for work (SEE: My Second United Horror Story). But this usually isn’t the case.

Second, act immediately. Don’t wait for the airline to get back to you with options, if their notification asks you to wait. Pick up the phone and try to get an agent immediately. If you have the ability, you should pursue two options at once. Typically, I pick up the phone immediately since it usually takes at least several minutes to get a person on the other end of the line. But at the same time, I start finding other options.

Sometimes, you’ll be offered a link for rebooking through the airline website or app. My two experiences using this with United were a bust. Both times it wanted to re-book us on a flight over a day later. This is why I suggest picking up the phone right away.

At the same time, I go to the airline’s website and Google Flights (SEE: 6 reasons Google Flights is the BEST flight search engine) to do my own research. If seats are still showing for sale, a flight still likely has seats left (although airlines sometimes *do* oversell flights). While waiting on hold, find some potential options that work for you. Think outside the box. If you are booked on United and there aren’t any of their flights available, see if there are any options on another carrier. United is unlikely to fly you on American or Delta, but the big airlines do have interline agreements with each other. Also consider other area airports at either your origin or destination that could work.

In my case, I did exactly what I just described. I called up Delta and headed to my computer to find options.

Being proactive works

The Delta agent initially offered me two options: an 8:30 p.m. departure nonstop to CDG on Air France, or an 11:00 a.m. departure on their own metal with a super tight connection in Salt Lake City. Neither were especially appealing. While the nonstop flight sounded nice, I didn’t really want to hang around the airport all day. I’d rather get to Paris. The super tight connection would also be risky if anything went wrong. We’d have to get rebooked again.

The agent mentioned that there was an earlier departure to Salt Lake City, but it was at 7:45 a.m. We’d have to wait around at SLC for over three hours. That wasn’t ideal, but I was leaning toward it. She put me on hold again to look for any more options.

By that time I’d made it to my computer at work where I was frantically searching Google Flights. Two options stood out to me: a routing through LAX to connect to an Air France flight, or a 8:10 a.m. departure to Seattle to another Delta flight. This still wasn’t ideal, but the connection time was reasonable. Plus, at SeaTac we would be able to hang out in the lounge instead of in the terminal. I figured 2.5 hours would be easier there. Plus, I despise LAX.

When the agent came back, she said she’d only found the two options originally quoted. I don’t know if she was being lazy, or maybe she had just ruled out all the early flights. I asked if there was an 8:10 departure to Seattle that connected to Delta flight 34. She found it easily, to my utter lack of surprise. Had I not done my own research, we would have been stuck with a risky 35-minute connection at SLC.

Everything worked out smoothly

The only real loss was that of our morning. Instead of having a stress-free late morning arrival at SFO, I had to get the kids up and moving pretty early. We flew out at 8:10 a.m. instead of the originally scheduled 1:55 p.m. KLM’s cancellation is also grounds for an EU261 claim, which will net us $700 (SEE: My EU261 claim is approved! But for how much?). We also landed in Paris ahead of our originally scheduled arrival, which gave us more time in Paris (although it meant we had to drag ourselves through an entire day on no sleep).

Featured image courtesy of Tom Page via Flickr under CC 2.0 license

My First Flight to Nowhere

On the heels of a miserably long day of travel (for the flight distance) after a canceled flight (SEE: My Second United Horror Story), I had another awesome experience with United. It was deja vu.

Instead of a flight cancellation stranding me hundreds of miles from the next closest airport, however, this was different. I took my first flight to nowhere.

Work isn’t the problem, travel is

After finally arriving in Las Vegas at 2:00 a.m. Friday morning, I had to be up and in Needles by 10:00 or so. This allowed me about 5.5 hours of sleep, but it was enough. My day of work went well, and I made it back by evening into Henderson.

Since my flight was middle of the day on Saturday, I got plenty of rest my second night. The morning was leisurely, and I worked a couple hours and got some blog posts written for Points with a Crew from the Centurion Lounge Las Vegas. Then it was time to head to the plane. An uneventful 2 hours later, I stepped off in San Francisco.

From the Centurion Lounge San Francisco and while walking to my gate, I was thinking about how smoothly today had gone compared to Thursday. Except it wasn’t over yet.

Flying to nowhere

It all started with some confusion at the gate. I arrived just as boarding was supposed to start, but no one was in line. Gate 84 can be confusing since United parks multiple CRJs at the gate and often boards them back to back.

The fact that it was scheduled boarding time and nothing was happening should have been my first clue that something was amiss. I just chalked it up to a typical United delay. When I finally asked a gate agent what was happening, she said that the flight was delayed due to weather. I only had to assume it was the Arcata weather.

About 20 minutes later we finally boarded. I sat in my tiny window seat on a tiny CRJ-200. This is definitely not my favorite plane (SEE: Argh! I thought I’d seen the last of the United CRJ-200). But seat 2A did give me a great view of the captain when he came back to discuss why we were sitting so long. We were playing the waiting game with the Humboldt fog.

Kudos to the captain for keeping us on the ground as long as he did. It was a serious mark of professionalism for him to come back in person to address everyone. You could tell that this wasn’t his first rodeo with the wild SFO-ACV hop.

He finally decided to depart when conditions in Arcata were “improving”. We had already sat on the ground for about an hour, and the CRJ-200 had two more flights scheduled that evening, so it had to get going sometime.

Taxi and takeoff were quick, one of the quickest out of SFO I’ve ever experienced. As we got closer and closer to Arcata, I began to figure all was fine and dandy.

Then the plane started a long, slow bank to the right, and I realized I might not be making it home that night. Back to San Francisco we went. We parked at the same gate. I had literally gone nowhere.

All’s well that ends well

After arriving back at SFO, the gate agent printed me a standby ticket and told me to run to gate 77. Which I did. No more running. I’m tired of these United games.

Out of breath, I arrived at the final flight to ACV. Which I almost didn’t take. I wanted to get a hotel and get some sleep. The idea of wasting another 2 hours trying again seemed foolish. But the next flight they could get me on happened to be the following day at 7:00 p.m., so I figured I’d give it a shot.

After a long delay, we were finally in the air and headed for Humboldt again. To my astonishment, we didn’t turn around this time, and the ERJ-175 touched down smoothly at ACV. Everyone clapped. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard anyone clap on a domestic flight.

Conclusion

I really have a love-hate relationship with our tiny airport. It’s so convenient, but it is so unreliable. The considerable delays and cancellations plus no other airline options is a recipe for disaster. United has left me in the lurch now three times with canceled flights. Two of these involved Arcata Airport. Let’s hope this is the last for a while.

My Second United Horror Story

Almost two years to the day after our first debacle (SEE: Our First United Horror Story), United managed to leave me high and dry again. Well, it wasn’t all their fault. But the whole experience was still frustrating.

Last-minute work trip

Work sent me to Needles this week. I booked a flight from Arcata to Las Vegas and rented a car to make the 2 hour drive. After departing on Thursday, I am in the process of returning today (and things are looking fine to make it home on time…so far). Hotel, rental car, I had everything quickly and easily booked for the trip. What could go wrong?

Things started with a minor delay notification just as I arrived at ACV. This was expected, as I had been monitoring the inbound aircraft for a few hours. It had been delayed a couple legs prior, so I expected departure from Arcata to be 20-30 minutes late. Really not bad compared to what our little airport often experiences. Assuming that was the extent of it, I would still make my connection in SFO.

Hmmm….I can’t see the runway

After going through security at ACV (which can be an ordeal, SEE: Getting the full pat down from the TSA at Arcata Airport), I sat down and thought I’d be waiting maybe 15 minutes for our aircraft to arrive. I chose to sit by the window to have a good view of the CRJ-200 landing.

But then I realized that the fog was so thick I couldn’t see the runway. This was mildly concerning, but no one had said anything about the flight being canceled.

It was barely 10 minutes later when another announcement came over the PA system: our inbound aircraft had been diverted to Medford. They could not safely land the plane due to the thick fog.

Making alternate plans

I gave myself 3 minutes to collect my thoughts and look up alternate flight options out of ACV, STS and SFO. As it had not been this foggy when we arrived at the airport, the blanket had just rolled in. Who knows when it would clear up enough for an aircraft to land. In any case, I knew I’d be missing my connection to Las Vegas for sure. If I was lucky, I could still get on one of the other two departures out of SFO that evening.

I decided to call United while also heading to the check-in counter. As expected, there were plenty of other people there already. Fortunately, I got a United rep on the phone within 3 minutes, which beat waiting in a long line to get rebooked.

I asked the rep about the status of the flight and what my options were. There was one more departure out that day, but I didn’t know if I could get a seat on it. Or if the fog would cooperate.

While I was on the phone, the cancellation announcement came over the PA. Now I had to make a call: cancel the trip or drive to SFO. I chose to roll with things as long as I could. Time to multitask.

Rebooking a flight, booking a car

I walked to the National counter and asked the guy for a car. He had a grand total of one. I was glad I got there first. Meanwhile, I fed the United rep the flight number I wanted out of SFO, a 10:20 p.m. departure nonstop to Vegas. It’d cost a bundle for the rental car, but I could still get to Las Vegas and to my hotel by midnight.

But her reply stunned me: there were no seats left on the flight. Now I started to panic a bit inside.

She offered to book me on an 8:56 departure out of SFO to LAX, with an 11:15 connection to Las Vegas. I hesitated. Could I make it to SFO in time? It was currently 3:25, so that gave me about 4:30 to reasonably make the flight, and that would still be cutting it close. I’ve never driven that quickly to the Bay, and I need to tack on an additional 30+ minutes to my typical time, as I was in Arcata and not Ferndale.

I decided to risk it. In any case, if I got stuck in the Bay, I could always get a hotel and be on the first flight out the net morning (assuming it isn’t full, too). I’d have to pay extra for that as well, but at least I’d still make the appointments I’d set up.

Pedal to the metal

Key in had, I dashed to my rental car, threw my bag in, and took off. With any luck, I’d have a shot at making the flight.

My heart sunk when the navigation forecast an 8:40 p.m. arrival at SFO. With a scheduled flight time 16 minutes later, there was no way I’d make it. But maybe I could make up a little time?

It was a race against the clock. I did 10 over the posted limit most of the way (don’t be like me), and the arrival time slowly walked back minute by minute.

Fortunately, I’ve driven 101 south the Bay numerous times in the past few years. I know the road really well, and this was a major advantage. The only poor ingredient is being in an unfamiliar car. But the Kia Soul I’d been given handled well enough.

Glimmer of hope?

Traffic was amazingly good the whole drive. I didn’t get stuck behind any big trucks, and only for a couple minutes behind slow moving cars with no passing lane. The navigation kept walking back the arrival time, and I became more hopeful.

When I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, my forecasted arrival time was 8:04. I might actually do this.

Stupidly, I didn’t pre-pay the gas tank (SEE: The ONE rental car mistake I always make). This meant I would burn 5 minutes at the gas station. I banked on there being one easily accessible off of 19th Avenue as I headed through San Francisco.

This turned out to be exactly correct. I was in and out of Chevron in the fastest time ever. It still cost me 6 minutes.

The rest of the drive was easy, and I returned the car promptly at 8:10. Receipt in hand, I took off toward the air train at a sprint. I had about 35 minutes to get to the terminal, through security, and to my gate before the airplane door closed.

Will I make it?

I missed an Airtrain from the rental car center by seconds. Luckily, the next one was in the distance already, and headed toward us.

It took about 20 minutes for the Airtrain to arrive at Terminal 3. I tore down the escalator and to security.

Even though security took maybe 12 minutes, it felt like forever. If I missed this flight, I wasn’t getting out of San Francisco until the next day.

At 8:42 I was finally free of the TSA. Time to sprint. Luckily, the gate wasn’t too far.

I arrived at the gate at 8:45 and there were (amazingly) a few people still in the boarding line. They turned out to be a family flying standby who were discussing seating arrangements with the staff. It sounded like the middle school aged kids weren’t with their parents. I was glad that their discussion had bought me a minute or two. I had made it.

We pushed back on time. Actually, 4 minutes early. But then air traffic kept us on the ground for a few minutes. In any case, we took off close enough to on-time that I was confident I’d make my connection. I’ve never been happier to be on a plane.

No, I don’t want to spend the night in LA

We touched down at 10:22, giving me plenty of time to make my 11:15 connection. Or so I thought.

The Boeing 737-900 came to a stop sooner than expected . I don’t know exactly where we were, but we were not next to a gate. By my guess, we were west of the International Terminal still.

Which is exactly what my phone confirmed. The captain came on after a minute and said that our gate was occupied and that we were hanging out here out of the way until they push back. Great.

The minutes ticked by, and my tight (but reasonable) connection evaporated. I would be hard pressed to get on the plane to Vegas.

To make things worse, we were going to park at Terminal 8. My next flight was out of Terminal 7.

It seemed to take people forever to get off the plane. I was in an exit row and aisle, which is not too far back. Finally, I pushed past one guy (a major no-no deplaning) taking his sweet time gathering his stuff into his luggage in the aisle, and hurried down the aisle and off the plane.

Another sprint it was. Until my lungs felt like they were on fire, then it was walk fast for 15 seconds to catch a breath and then sprint again.

I would have been the last person on the plane, had the guy in front of me hurrying to gate had his boarding pass out and ready. He didn’t, and he told me to go ahead.

It’s a (post) Christmas miracle!

The instant I set foot on that plane a wave of relief washed over me. I’d actually made it. I’d be in Las Vegas that night (well, the next morning, as we landed around 12:30 a.m.). Everything looked so bleak when I started my drive, but it turned out fine.

I made it to my hotel about 1:45 a.m. and to bed by 2:00. Never has a pillow felt so good.

Final thoughts

I hope to never do this again. Ever. But with flights as fickle as they are between San Francisco and Arcata, I’ll undoubtedly face another situation like this.

I’m glad everything turned out well. I managed to get 6 hours of sleep, and I still made my work appointments.

As convenient as ACV is compared to the Bay, I have a love-hate relationship with our airport. It is situations like this that end up costing extra time, money and inconvenience. I was fortunate everything turned out well enough in my case. But it may not in the future.

Should you purchase roadside assistance protection when renting a car?

A couple weeks ago my wife and I took our kids to the beach in Costa Rica. We have been in the country a few weeks now as we are adopting three beautiful siblings. Given that we’d finished our first round of appointments, we figured it was time to take our first excursion out of San José.

Our first morning was spent at Playa Mantas. We all had a wonderful time laughing and playing in the surf. It was a perfect day.

Then disaster stuck. I realized I’d lost our rental car key. Stupidly, I had completely forgotten to take it out of my pocket and stick it in our bag before jumping into the waves! We concluded that it must have fallen out of the cargo pocket of my swimsuit.

After futilely scouring the sand for a while, I made the dreaded call to the rental car office. Considering that we were almost 2 hours from San José, I knew this mistake was going to cost us a pretty penny.

That is, until I realized that I had purchased roadside assistance protection for our 2-week SUV rental. All said and done, I only had to pay for the cost of the key, which turned out to be $50.

In our case, this extra service turned out to pay off. But in general should you purchase roadside assistance protection when renting a car?

roadside assistance protection worth it

What is Roadside Assistance Protection?

This service is something many rental companies offer as an add-on service to the base rental rate. It typically costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 per day, which may not seem like much. Roadside assistance typically: covers the following:

  • Lockouts
  • Lost keys
  • Jumpstarts
  • Fuel delivery (if you run out)
  • Roadside assistance with other problems, such as a flat tire.

Roadside assistance does not cover any accidents. It typically only offers help for the services above and anything else that might be included in the terms of the coverage.

The coverage also doesn’t cover breakdowns. If the customer does something to the car that causes it to break down, they are still on the hook. If the issue wasn’t the customers fault, the rental company is on the hook even if you don’t purchase the extra coverage.

Should you purchase roadside assistance when renting a car?

In general, I would say no, especially if you are renting domestically. You will likely be paying for coverage you already have. Check with your own car insurance provider to see what is covered. If you have a service such as AAA, you should be covered when you rent as well.

Since many rentals are domestic where people’s own insurance already covers them, roadside assistance protection is pure profit for a car rental company. Therefore agents at the counter will often try to sell you on it.

In some cases, roadside assistance may make sense. If you are going to be driving through rural areas where there are no services and/or you are not covered by your own insurance, consider whether a few extra bucks might offer some extra piece of mind. Just be sure you know what you are buying!

Before purchasing the service, I also made sure that I did not already have complimentary roadside assistance through my Business Platinum Card from American Express. Turns out this is restricted to the U.S. and Canada. Bummer.

Roadside assistance protection paid off in our case

Since this was my first time renting a car internationally (besides in Canada), I was a bit leery of getting into an accident and/or getting stuck somewhere on the side of the road with my wife and 3 kids in a foreign country. I knew I had collision damage waiver coverage when using my Chase Sapphire Preferred card to pay for the rental, but I ended up opting for both the supplemental liability insurance and the roadside assistance protection. My own car insurance unfortunately doesn’t apply outside of the USA, Canada, and Mexico.

In our case, the roadside assistance protection cost us $3.99 per day. Over 14 days, this came to $55.86. While I don’t know how much Budget would have charged us for the key delivery service, I know that it would have been substantially more than this. Sure, I could have prevented the situation entirely with a little more forethought, but it really saved our bacon this time.

It took a couple phone calls and cost us maybe 45 minutes dealing with the situation. And then $50 back at the rental counter. I’m glad I bought the protection, all things said and done.

I’d also like to mention again that the service covers jumpstarts, which we might have needed as well.  Turns out a hill works just fine when your car is a standard. No coverage needed here.

Conclusion

To recap, I don’t generally consider roadside assistance protection to be worth purchasing, especially not domestically. Like many types of protections and insurances, weigh the risk versus the cost before you agree to it. We came out ahead this time. But most people typically don’t. Hence the rental companies’ tendency to heavily sell this protection.

Featured image courtesy of Erico Junior Wouters under CC 2.0 license

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