Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Travel Mishaps (page 1 of 3)

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

Just keep my gift card and let me go!

For the first night of our recent trip to Montana (SEE: First Use of the Amex Business Platinum 50% Points Rebate), my brother-in-law and I rolled into Medford a little after 9:00 p.m. for an overnight. Friday morning we flew out today to Kalispell, Montana. Staying the night was a better option than get up at 3:30 in the morning to hit the road for a 4 hour drive.

Since we were literally only sleeping in the hotel, I didn’t really care where we stayed. I initially booked a room at a random budget hotel through Priceline for $56. But then I remembered I had a Choice Hotels gift card in my desk from some promotion well over a year ago. Hello Econolodge.

“Is it a Choice gift card?”

When we arrived there was a “No Vacancy” sign on the Econolodge, which made me a bit nervous we might not get the room type I requested (which meant one of us would be on the floor for sure). The lady at the front desk took our IDs and my credit card. I also passed her my Choice Hotels gift card that would cover $75 of the $76.01 balance.

I knew trouble was afoot when she asked, “what is this?” “A gift card that I’d like to use,” I offered. She proceeded to show it to the other agent who confusedly asked, “Is it a Choice gift card?” No, it’s for Hyatt. *eye roll*

The next 10 minutes were spent trying to get the gift card to work. This process even involved waking up the manager who was sleeping(!) in the room adjoining the front desk area. She groggily gave it a go. The card ultimately didn’t work. All they could offer was “sorry”, before asking me to pay for the room in full. Since we just wanted to get to bed, they really had me over a barrel.

Calling up Choice

In the morning I gave Choice a call. After being on hold for 25 minutes, and honestly doubting they would be able to do anything for me, I gave up. I figured I would just go to the desk again and see if the card would work at checkout.

The front desk agent was more helpful this time, and actually aware that plastic Choice gift cards exist (a definite plus)! He was still perplexed, however, as to why this one wouldn’t work. After a bit of back and forth, I finally convinced him to keep the card and work things out with Choice himself. My Chase Sapphire charge was adjusted to a mere $1.06.

Was it worth the headache?

In this case, yes, but barely so. The front desk agent was graciously accommodating. My options otherwise would have been either: stay on the phone with Choice and hope they work it out, or leave the balance on my Chase Sapphire Preferred and eat the cost of the stay. I would also be one useless gift card richer.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

One of the most frustrating things about traveling is watching all your well-laid plans go completely out the window. Hours of planning and preparing, all for nothing. This is why you should actually *keep* preparing for reasonably foreseeable problems that may arise.

I am constantly reminded how unpredictable travel can be. My wife and I have had our share of incidents, from minor delays, to unpredictable driving conditions (read: landslides), to completely canceled flights. Two of the worst incidents include our recent detour around the 101 slide (SEE: So close, yet so far), and being completely hosed by United on our trip to Quebec (SEE: Our First United Horror Story).

Planning for FT4RL

When I booked my recent flight to Orlando for the Family Travel 4 Real Life conference (SEE: Invaluable Disney travel hacks and other things I learned at FT4RL), I was poignantly aware that I had chosen an itinerary with only a 35 minute connection in San Francisco. The ticket was the best I could find to fit my $500 budget with my Merrill Lynch points that only had one connection. It also had good departure and arrival times.

Normally, this would be everything I’d want in a flight. Except I understand all too well United’s track record flying between Arcata and San Francisco. That route may have the worst on time performance of any in the whole U.S. I’m serious. Delays are pretty much inevitable on the route.

My “worst case” plan

Because the late morning flight from Arcata has such an abysmal on time performance (it’s one of the lovely options in Google Flights that gets the “often delayed by 30+ minutes” designation), I made sure I researched some alternate flights. Rather than simply let an agent rebook me into whatever makes sense to them, I like to understand all my options. Being prepared in the event of a delay could save me substantial time and headache.

For example, I knew I would prefer flying part of the way on a connecting flight rather than take the next nonstop flight to Orlando. If I had missed the 12:55 p.m. departure out of SFO, I would have been stuck waiting until a 10:40 p.m. departure! This would be an awful red-eye,  arriving at a little after 7:00 a.m. eastern time. There is no way I wanted that flight, even if it is a nonstop.

Instead, I would prefer to fly to one of United’s hubs. I specifically identified Houston as the best one, mainly because hotels are cheap (in case United wouldn’t comp me), and because there are a LOT of flight options, both from SFO to IAH and from IAH to MCO. More options = less chance of significant delays.

Chicago was a secondary option to Houston. There are just as many flights to Orlando each day. But it would be a slightly longer trip. Either way, I’d given myself enough travel time that an overnight delay wouldn’t kill the trip.

I jotted down some preferred flight numbers for both options, in case I missed the flight to Orlando. I wanted to be able to feed the agent the exact flights on which I desired to be rebooked.

The final precaution

The last thing I ended up doing was changing my reservation in Orlando at the Country Inn & Suites. If I missed my flight and couldn’t make it, I would be out the points. Instead, I planned on either booking an IHG hotel on points at the last minute, or using cash if rates were decent. Orlando was actually one of the best options for earning at least a small number of bonus points from my Q2 IHG accelerate offer, so I opted for cash.

Ultimately, everything turned out fine. The flight out of Arcata left a mere 5 minutes late, which is unheard of. We landed a few minutes late at SFO, and I literally walked off one flight, down the terminal, and onto the other. It was the closest connection I’ve ever had that I’ve actually made.

In this case, planning for “the worst” wasn’t necessary. But I know that things won’t always go that smoothly!

So close, yet so far

Last week my wife and I were returning from a wonderful 5 night getaway in Banff and Calgary, Alberta. Banff National Park is spectacular, even in shoulder season when there is lingering snow and cool temperatures (SEE: Banff, Alberta in 14 photos).

Our travel plans home included a midday non-stop flight to SFO out of Calgary on United, and then a 5.5 hour drive home back up the coast.

Flying 1,000 miles? No problem

Our flight was uneventful, and we landed in San Francisco just in time to catch the rush hour traffic headed north.

After fighting our way through Santa Rosa, the road finally opened up. We started counting down the final 3 hours of our drive, anticipating being home in our lovely apartment around 10:00 p.m.

Driving 270 miles? A bit more difficult

We got as far as Leggett, only to be stopped by a “Road Closed” sign. A CalTrans worker soon informed us that a problematic hillside had decided to fall into the road again, and 101 was completely closed. The road had just opened from the previous slide the day before. Shoulda figured it would slip again. *Sigh.* Back to Willits we’ll go.

Willits, the closest town to where we got turned around, is only about 100 miles from where we live. Because the road was closed at the worst pinch point possible, there was no easy to way to just drive around.

Many of you who are locals understand the major issues we’ve had this winter, as 101 has seen multiple closures. When 101 is closed at Leggett, you only have 2 options:

  1. Take a local dirt and gravel road that is not intended for a large amount of traffic (and by all accounts has been brutalized this winter)
  2. Drive 7 hours around, which is over 3 times what the drive *should* take!

Because we drive a minivan and not a 4×4 pickup, the only reasonable option was the latter.

The long way home

We spent the night at the Super Duper Pooper 8 in Willits, basically just sleeping and showering.  The next morning we hit the road at 7:00, headed south to take Highway 20 over to I5. By a little after 9:00 we had reached the valley. An hour later we made a pit stop in Red Bluff before heading back over the mountains.

The last few hours were the worst, as we drove winding highway 36. The road has taken a beating this year, as so many people have had to drive around the closures on highway 101.

Finally, we arrived home a little after 1:00. I literally headed straight to the office and into a meeting, arriving at 1:30 on the dot.

Will this ever get better?

Honestly, this sort of thing has become par for the course when we travel. Some situation *always* seems to present itself that we have to work around.

I just have to resign myself to the fact that getting in and out of Humboldt will never be an easy proposition. Yet I still seem to convince myself that one of these times things will be different.

Header image courtesy of CalTrans. 

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