Air and accommodations: The good, the bad and the ugly

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The best things in life aren't things... but it's good to know you can replace it.

The best things in life aren’t things… but it’s good to know you can replace it.

A week and 2 days, and counting. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

I get my shots and probably malaria pills tomorrow. I have my new suitcase ready to pack (next weekend) and I’m reading like a wild banshee to get familiar with the next Lucky Lindy wild ride.

Shares codes and multi-cities and strange carriers, oh my!

Getting my ticket has taken nearly 4 full weeks of calls and emails with United Airlines. I have been a loyalist to the mighty grey and blue for well over a decade, and this certainly was not the first time they tested my love. I’ve been checking fares for months now to get a feel for the cost. My buying strategy is to buy the tickets with cash, and upgrade with my bank of miles.

Since I missed last year’s annual trip so I could get settled financially after a contentious divorce, I failed to realize how United’s frequent flyer rules had changed. (Last year, a guy in my boxing class who had also been through a divorce, suggested that if 1. all my debts weren’t paid and 2. I couldn’t make the whole trip on cash, don’t go. I can’t afford it. Great advice and well worth the wait to travel debt-free.)

United’s big 2015 MileagePlus program now means I accrue miles based on ticket price instead of distance, which seems to me, disingenuous to the travelers versus the quasi-travellers building their miles through credit card purchases. Nevertheless, I began attempting to purchase my ticket online before Thanksgiving without success. I would get all the way to the payment information screen and repeatedly got “error.” Finally after 3 days, I called the 800 number and asked that they make the purchase.

After 2 hours on the phone, I was told my ticket had gone through and all was well. I received an email confirmation from United and proceeded to make my hotel arrangements.

Except all was not well.

After a couple weeks of waiting and watching for the money to transfer to United… I gave them a call. Apparently, Vietnam Airlines does not code share with United. So what? I thought. Well, the lack of confirmation by Vietnam Air on a single leg of my trip from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), Vietnam, blew the entire thing up and put United in a stall on my ticket; a fact that I didn’t discover until checking on why the funds hadn’t cleared a couple weeks later. Yes. We’re almost to the point of the story where this is no longer fun and I’m wondering if Southeast Asia is the right destination for me.

Writing trips to Africa have, likewise, been a combative event as well due to the complexity of carriers and routes, so I persevered remembering that the best things in life are usually challenging.

Still, there would be hours and hours of sitting on hold (on my headset while working, of course) with United, while being told I did have a ticket, no I didn’t have a ticket, I did have a ticket but it was double the cost, oh no, it disappeared again. Every time I called I got a new story. Sometimes the agent was kind and helpful. Sometimes they were ridiculously rude and hung up on me. Each time I called back until I moved the ball just a tick forward. Painful inch by painful inch.

Finally I was told I had a ticket, but it was $800 more than I had originally thought I paid before Thanksgiving. After being told they would hold the ticket for 24 hours, I called back 3 more times and got the same answer: the price had gone up and there was absolutely nothing they could do. Even a supervisor gave me the same story.

I hung up thinking I might have lost this one and that they squeezed another $800 from me and that was that. My hotels, boats rides and tuk tuks were already arranged. And how do you cancel a tuk tuk anyway, right?

I suddenly got a burst of energy. I went into an obscure Internet browser that I never use. It held none of my history, passwords or preferences. I mean, does anyone really use Opera, anyway?

I went into the United website and typed in my multi-city request, clicking all the boxes for absolutely, positively NO flexibility (usually the highest price you can pay) and clicked “search.” I closed my eyes in wild anticipation. I finally opened them and stared at the screen.

The bed-car-airplane graphic animation was still circling and immediately hypnotized me into a daze, finally stopping like a roulette wheel on my exact number. There is was. The exact flights. The exact cities. $100 less than I originally thought I paid before Thanksgiving and $900 less than I was told 10 minutes ago by a United phone agent that I would have to pay. Go figure.

I was still way outside the home stretch. I had to actually consummate a transaction. I carefully typed in my payment information as if I was detonating a bomb. Snap. The first wire and line of information was entered. Snap. The next line and the next. Now I was to the finale. The proceed button glared back at me from my screen as if to rattle me into failure. I would not be moved. I glared at the screen as I tapped my mouse with a confident snicker.


I was now well-trained in all things United. In my hours and hours of serendipitous tutorials with the United phone agents, I was told about a relatively unknown, little link blue link on the page right before you press “buy ticket.” The little blue link says, “phone order.” If you press this link, you get a confirmation number that captures the ticket (and price!) that you are attempting to purchase. The phone agent can use this to call up the order and complete the reservation, even if it errors out on the website… which it did.

Once on the phone, I consummated the ticket at $900 less than moments before with a new agent. I hung up the phone, took a deep breath and called the MileagePlus desk. How much to upgrade my ticket to first class. What is that you say? $600 and 30,000 miles. By Jove, you have a deal! The money has moved. The suitcase sits hungry on my bedroom floor waiting to be packed. And I am as good as on my way.



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