Monday, February 2, 2015

Jay and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Travel Experience

Consider this a public service announcement. Buckle up, because it's a long ride and it's going to get bumpy.

This past weekend, the family and I flew up to MA to help my parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. We planned a small dinner with friends and family at a local Italian place, inviting a couple dozen of my parents' closest friends (and even a few members of their wedding party). Since it was a regular weekend, we opted to fly up rather than drive - we would have spent ~ 18 hours in the car and gotten only slightly more time than that to visit.

Looking around, I hit several aggregator-type sites for tickets. Orbitz had the best deal, so I booked four tickets. I should have realized something was wrong when it wouldn't allow me to select seats for my son when using the same name (He is a IV, I am a III). Even though there is a drop-down menu for suffix, it apparently did not translate into the whole choosing seats and finalizing the reservation.

I received a flight confirmation and an Orbitz booking number, but no airline confirmation code. This should have been my second clue. Third clue: Even though I chose seats on the airplane, the confirmation e-mail did not indicate such. I didn't think much of it, booking it at the end of December and anticipating SHOT Show. I assumed it would get sorted out and pushed the discrepancies to the back of my mind.

Upon my return from SHOT, I took another look at the e-mail. The complete and utter lack of an airline confirmation number worried me, so I called Orbitz and received the airlines confirmation number. Again, no seat choice was indicated, so I contacted JetBlue just to make sure we actually had seats on the airplane. Sure enough, there was no seat for my son, so we worked through both the inbound and return flight, selected seats, and I received an e-mail from Jetblue with the airline confirmation number, the seat numbers, etc.

I figured this was all set, and congratulated myself on looking into it a week ahead of time.

Then the night before the flight (last Thursday), when I attempted to check in online, I was unable to complete the check in. Now, we were flying up for the weekend, and were packed so that we wouldn't have to check luggage, so the plan was to bypass the ticket counter completely once we had boarding passes in hand. Yeah, you can see where this is going...

I called JetBlue Thursday night and talked to one of their customer service people, who told me that the website had been having problems and to keep trying, and at worst just check in at the airport. I tried a few times and continuously got the error message Thursday night, and tried again Friday morning from a different computer (as well as mobile). When three separate devices and multiple attempts to check in failed, I called JetBlue again (I'm a belt-and-suspenders kinda guy that way).

This time I was told that online check in wasn't available for travelers that purchased their tickets through a third party (Orbitz/Expedia/Priceline/etc.). Now, this threw up ALL kinds of red flags, because I've flown a fair amount, and the number of times I have booked directly with an airline can be counted on one hand. With fingers left over. But I resigned to leave extra early and just sort it out at the ticket counter.

We arrived at the airport, parked, and made it to the ticket counter a full 2 hours before the flight was scheduled to leave. There was an additional half-hour cushion from the flight being delayed. Made it to the JetBlue counter and there was not another soul present - score! Well, it took 45 minutes to get four boarding passes - apparently the lack of a suffix really messed with the system. In the end, the JetBlue counter person told us we were all set. I even inquired about the return flight, wondering if there would be a problem of the same nature.

She assured me that we were "all set" for the return flight. This is the part in a horror movie where you'd hear ominous music in the background. What should have been a REAL indicator of the competence of the staff was the fact that my son and my daughter were given a boarding pass for the same seat. Fortunately, the plane was barely half-full and it wasn't an issue.

The next morning I awoke and immediately went online to check in for the return flight. Sure enough, the confirmation number worked - except there were only two tickets showing. There's four of us. I debated whether that was because two of the party were minors, and then I picked up the phone and called JetBlue again. This time, it was a half-hour wait before I got through.

The woman at the customer service line informed me that the reason there were only two tickets was that the JetBlue counter agent in Dulles had split our flight into two itineraries to compensate for the same name. Now, HAD SHE TOLD ME about splitting it and HAD SHE GIVEN ME THE DAMN SECOND NUMBER, we could have avoided a lot of hassle. Except she didn't - all I got was "you're all set" and the bum's rush. Yes, you heard that right. Our itinerary was split into two confirmation numbers - the number you need to get a boarding pass - and the ticket agent not only neglected to give me the number, she neglected to even tell me that she had split our itinerary.

The woman on the CS line gave me the second confirmation number, and I assumed that things would get better. I hung up with her and went to the JetBlue check in, only to find out that the split ticket contained my children on one ticket - and you can't check in minors without an adult through the online check in. At this point, I was starting to think about renting a car and driving home, because I was certain this was an omen...

So, even though we flew out for a weekend, bringing the bare necessities so that we could bypass the ticket counter part of the flying experience, because of the initial incompetence at Orbitz in not transmitting the suffix (even though I supplied DOB for both my son and I), and the continued incompetence of JetBlue, we wound up having to go to the ticket counter on both the outbound and inbound flights. Now, in all fairness I was able to use the self-service kiosk to obtain all four tickets on the flight back to VA, so that delay was minimal.

I don't care for flying, as a general rule. Some of it is primal, and stems from previous bad experiences with turbulence and a near-miss. Some of it is biological - being crammed into a steel tube with a teeming mass of humanity is a great way to pick up all kinds of fun communicable diseases. And, quite frankly, I'm not a big fan of the probulation and treatment of all air travelers as near-criminals. Sometimes, though, we need to push through for the good of the mission.

When a simple weekend trip for the family turns into this kind of ordeal, though, something has to be said. While not that many people are Jr.s, IIIs, etc.; there are certainly enough out there to warrant a little extra care. One little thing getting messed up can really have an impact downstream.

What's the take-home lesson?

1. Listen to that voice. When I didn't receive an airline confirmation number in the initial e-mail from Orbitz, I should have checked then. As it stands, I caught it with a week to spare and *still* had things get all screwed up. If something in the back of your head is saying "hey, wait, there's something wrong here", take a moment to look things over carefully and see if you can pick out what made the voice speak up.

2. Check, double-check, and check again. It's hard to be thorough when you've been cooling your heels for 45 minutes at the ticket counter, the kids are restless, and you just want to get through the exquisite experience of TSA check in. Had we taken a moment to look at the boarding passes, we would have caught the duplication and perhaps inquired further about the return trip. I'm also glad I didn't wait until I got to the ticket counter before investigating why I hadn't got a confirmation number - having an e-mail from JetBlue with my conf.# and seat arrangements was comforting.

Bottom line, we made it up to MA (a little late, but that was because of weather, which I understand is completely out of the hands of the airlines), got a chance to visit with the wife's family in the morning and my family in the evening at the party, and still made it home to VA with time to prepare for the week. It beat sitting in a car for 18 - 20 hours all to hell, especially where the return trip would have been on Superbowl Sunday. I'm grateful for not having to deal with that headache.

I'm also not planning on doing business with Orbitz ever again, and it will be a very long time before I willingly fly JetBlue...

That is all.


ProudHillbilly said...

And I'd post stuff on travel website reviews. This is in the realm of absurd.

And why one of my reasons for prefering to drive to Detroit unless flying means with Murphy's Law.

ProudHillbilly said...

And I'd post stuff on travel website reviews. This is in the realm of absurd.

And why one of my reasons for prefering to drive to Detroit unless flying means with Murphy's Law.

DaddyBear said...

Definitely need to shake both Orbitz and JetBlue's trees. You didn't pay their rates to get stressed over garbage lie this.

Laughingdog said...

This is another reason why I haven't flown since 2007.

Formynder said...

I favor Kayak out of all the combined fare sites, but almost all of my last flights have been direct through AA or Southwest.

Hunter said...

Stories like this make me appreciate Alaska Airlines all the more.

Murphy's Law said...

And stuff like this is why I bought my own damned plane. And on Murphy's Law Airlines, flying while armed is not prohibited--it's REQUIRED!

Daniel in Brookline said...

Murphy's Law -- I'd fly your airline anytime!

Jay, I'm sorry for your trouble. But you're absolutely right -- there is NO substitute for vigilance. And good on you that you were able to straighten things out!

(I was going to make some snarky comment about how we Jews don't have this problem, because we don't name sons after fathers. Then I remembered that my brother is named after our grandfather... and, yes, there HAS been confusion over this, even with our grandfather dead these fifty-plus years. My son is named after HIS grandfather, too, but we did change the middle name... see, I *can* be taught!!)

Anonymous said...

Next time Spell your sons name wrong by one letter.

Old NFO said...

This is why I always repeat always deal directly with the airlines. I categorically refused to use Orbitz, Travelocity, kayak or any other fly-by-night travel agency. You are lucky y'all made it there and back without serious issues.

Glenn B said...

Ditto Old NFO.

Robert Toy said...

Near miss? You mean a "Near hit" don't you? ;) (Old George Carlin routine)