Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Polar Vortex Of Aviation Misery

So far, 2014 has been one big reminder that bands should never tour the Northern Hemisphere in months ending in "-ary". As I write this, several musicians I know are still trying to get to their first gigs of the year, with more travel misery on the way. I've been there more times than I like to think about, so the whole thing has been painful to watch.

One thing we mere humans have zero control over is the weather, and traveling humans have even less control over the transport providers' response to it. Some things are to be expected: when a blizzard closes a major airport, the ripple effects are going to be felt throughout the entire system. (Also, if you live in the Northeast Corridor, you know to expect that Amtrak will have severe delays the minute the first flake hits the ground.) But over the past few days, even cynical me has been surprised by some of the things that have occurred out there (JetBlue, seriously?!).

The best we can do is prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. If you simply must fly to gigs in parts of the world where winter weather happens (which this year, seems to be all 48 contiguous United States), there are a few things that can hopefully minimize the misery should the elements conspire against you.

Plan to get there early.

Got a gig you need to fly to on January 15? Book your ticket for early in the day on the 13th, to build in a cushion for yourself in case things go wrong.

Fly South.

If your flight path requires a connection, try to connect in warmer climes if possible. Even if it means a longer layover in Dallas than you would have in Chicago, your chances are much higher that you'll get to your destination if you avoid going through the Arctic to get there.

Become a weather junkie.

This time of year, you can't pay close enough attention to the weather forecast. Ignore the media hype, and look at the facts. Install a weather app on your smartphone, and bookmark the National Weather Service pages for both your hometown and your destination (and the airport you're connecting through, if applicable). If the 10-day forecast for you, your destination, or connecting airport starts to look ominous, keep an eye on your airline. If things look bad enough, your airline might offer fee-free ticket changes ahead of the storm, which brings me to ...

Punt if you have to.

If you built in the cushion indicated above, you should have leeway to take advantage of an airline's offer to change your ticket if you can. Changing ahead of time may drastically reduce the hours you spend sitting around the airport, and will also create leeway for another passenger to be able to get home sooner. It's pay-it-forward, flying style.

Get creative.

If you do find yourself in airport-cancellation hell, a little flexibility can go a long way. If you are lucky enough to be able to carry everything on with you, you can end up with more options than your fellow travelers when it comes time to rebook. Can you get to another nearby airport to get a flight out from there? Can you fly into another airport and drive the rest of the way to your destination? Hell, can you just drive where you're going? (Sometimes, that will get you there sooner, even if the roads are dicey.)

Don't wait.

Don't wait hours in line to rebook. The second things start to look like they're going south, get on the line to your airline's rebooking department. (If you belong to a frequent-flier program, call the number on the back of your membership card - often, it's a different number than the one where everybody else is on hold.) At the same time, Tweet @ your airline to see if you get a quicker response that way. Then go for the trifecta - stand in the rebooking line while you're on the phone and waiting to hear back on Twitter. You won't be the only one, trust me.

Spring for the club.

If the problems you're anticipating are at your connecting airport, buy a day pass to your airline's lounge there, if there is one. That way, if you end up with a lengthy delay you'll have somewhere comfy (with free wifi!) to hang out. And better yet, if you need to be rebooked, the front desk staff in the lounge will be able to help you without your having to wait in line or on hold. On a bad travel day, that $50 is money well-spent.

Stand your ground -- nicely.

In a Snowpocalypse, when the airlines are cancelling flights by the hundreds, they will do everything they can to lose the least amount of money they can. Just in the past few days I have heard stories of airlines fabricating phantom "mechnical issues" in order to get out of giving hotel and food vouchers to stranded passengers, and coming up with specious reasons to charge passengers change fees even after flights that were cancelled due to weather. The key is to stand your ground, and don't let them play those games -- but keep a smile on your face as you do so. The agent you're dealing with has probably already faced dozens of pissed-off people before you, and if you are the one who is actually nice, you will probably get somewhere. (I also find that taking to Twitter -- politely! -- in these situations can often yield results.)

Be patient. You're not alone.

Overall, remember that you're not the only one in this situation. (Need proof? Check out FlightAware's handy Misery Map.) Lifelong friendships have been forged in long rebooking lines. Take a deep breath, and keep reminding yourself that in just a few short months, it'll be hotter than hell and you'll be dealing with thunderstorm-related delays instead.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Most Notable Travel Moments Of 2013

Happy 2014, fellow travelers! I hope you all had a stress-free and safe holiday season.

I'd meant to post this before the old year died, but family obligations and holiday travel intervened. However, since it's against the law not to post some sort of look back at the past year (right?), herewith my obligatory rundown of my top travel moments of 2013, in no particular order. Some are specific to my experience, and others aren't.

1. I won a fight with KLM, thanks to the power of Twitter.

At the end of an already-trying European tour this winter, we got to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam for our flight home. This was our first time flying KLM on tour, and as I always do when encountering a new-to-me airline, I had researched their oversize/overweight luggage limits and fees ahead of time, and factored that into our overall tour budget. So imagine my surprise when the ticket agent informed me that it was going to cost 300 euros more than I thought to put our gear onto the plane!

I explained that this was definitely not what their web site stated, and asked to speak to a supervisor. Another agent appeared, and the two agents started talking amongst themselves in Dutch. What they didn't know is that I speak German, and Dutch is close enough to German that I can catch phrases like "they'll never know the difference" and "tell them I'm your supervisor". I stood my ground, but the ticket agents did too.  Time started to get short, and finally it came down to us either catching our flight or not, and we were all more than ready to get home so I paid the extra euros so we could get on our way. But in the security line a few minutes later, I posted on Twitter that KLM shouldn't assume that stupid Americans can't understand them when they discuss the specifics of how they're screwing us over in Dutch.

Before I even got on the plane, KLM had Tweeted me back wanting to know more about what had happened. Thus began a week of back-and-forth with KLM customer service, culminating in my sending them a screen-shot of the part of their web site proving that I was right, and their ticket agent was wrong. They didn't completely admit their error, but they did refund me some money, so I considered it a moral victory. And now I know never to fly KLM on tour again.

The lesson here: if you have a gripe or a problem, a (polite!) Tweet @ the company you're having the issue with is a worthwhile thing to try. Twitter is a powerful customer service tool, which many travel companies have caught onto. @DeltaAssist is perhaps the best of the lot, but more and more airlines, car rental firms and hotel chains are paying attention to their @mentions in real-time. Just last week, I was able to resolve a boarding-pass issue with American Airlines within minutes after they responded to my Tweet about it, and my estimation of them went way up as a result.

2. The TSA admitted there is no good reason for anything they're doing.

I make no secret of my disdain for the TSA and its employees, and its specious brand of useless security theatre. Therefore, when news broke this fall that the TSA has admitted in internal memos that their methods have nothing to do with, you know, actually catching terrorists, all I could do was laugh to keep from crying.

Internal TSA Documents: Body Scanners, Pat Downs Not For Terrorists

The whole thing is choice, but this is my favorite part:
This begs the question, then, of what evidence the government possesses to rationalize that we should be so afraid of non-metallic explosives being brought aboard flights departing from the U.S. that we must sacrifice our civil liberties. The answer: there is none. “As of mid-2011, terrorist threat groups present in the Homeland are not known to be actively plotting against civil aviation targets or airports; instead, their focus is on fundraising, recruiting, and propagandizing.”
... so the next time you stand in the aptly-named "Rapiscan" (what I call "porno-scanner") getting irradiated for your 3 seconds of fame, remember: there really is no reason for it except to keep money funneling into the TSA's bottomless coffers. All in the name of security theatre. Safe travels!!

3. I qualified for TSA Pre-Check.

Another indication that the TSA's security theatre is a joke is their "TSA Pre-Check" program. I qualified for this when I was accepted into the Global Entry program (more on this in a future post), and just got to experience it for the first time in my holiday travels. For "Pre-Check" travelers, airport security has turned back the clock to the summer of 2001, and it is glorious. Keep those shoes and sweatshirts on, and enjoy jumping to the front of the line, pre-vetted low-risk flyers!

4. I found the best hotel deal evar.

When looking for accommodations outside of the U.S., I've found booking.com to be the best first place to look. Not only major chains, but independent hotels, inns, and B&Bs list there, so there are more choices than other sites like Kayak. When we're touring in a place like England, it's often more fun to stay in a place that has some history, rather than some soulless Holiday Inn Express next to a motorway. And thus it was that I stumbled upon the best deal of my travel life so far.

Ladies and gents, look where we stayed in England for about the same price as a motorway Travelodge:

To be fair, the rooms inside weren't all that, but they were clean, and the parking and the wifi were free. And it was a freaking English manor house. For the price of a Travelodge. Go, me!!!

5. I got to New Orleans for the first time.

For various reasons, our tour schedule hadn't yet brought us to NOLA until this Spring, on a run back home from SXSW. So it was that our band, and the band we were on tour with ended up on Bourbon Street on St. Patrick's Day. (Not quite as insane as Mardi Gras, but close.) We only had 24 hours outside of our gig to spend in town, but we soaked up as much of the French Quarter as we could, and we all left wanting to spend more time there, and soon. Hopefully we'll get back there this year.

6. There is no number six.

7. I stayed in the oldest inn in England.

When you're a Tour Manager with a degree in Medieval history, and you find yourself with the opportunity to put your band up in the oldest continually-operating inn in the British Isles on your UK tour, you do it. You tell the lead singer to suck it up when the wifi doesn't reach to her room out where the stables used to be, and you enjoy your (included!) breakfast in the Great Hall where Richard III once held court. And then you get to feel slightly better about not using your expensive degree in your day-to-day life.

8. I traveled ... for fun!

Outside of touring and traveling for family-related obligations, it had been many years since I packed my passport and got on a plane purely for fun. This fall, I was able to do just that (albeit extending a tour), spending a week in London hanging with friends, doing touristy things, and not having to deal with a vehicle or gear. I hope to get to do it again soon.

9. I discovered the wonders of AirBnB.

On said fun trip to London, I tried airbnb.com to find a place to stay, and it worked out great. For the same cost as a skanky hotel room in a far-flung part of London with a shared bathroom, I got a whole flat in Earl's Court. I'm not sure how useful this will be for touring (though I'm sure open to considering it), but for private travel, I'm sold.

10. The FAA finally relaxed the rules about electronics on planes.

Remember that old episode of "Mythbusters" where they busted the myth that cell phones on commercial airliners can cause the plane to crash? Well, the FAA finally watched it.

As long as your devices are on "airplane mode" while the plane is in motion, you can keep them on even during takeoff and landing. My recent holiday flights were so much better, since I could keep on reading and listening to music below 10,000 feet. (And my fellow travelers with assistive devices could keep them switched on, which is so much more than a mere matter of convenience.)

Finally, reason is starting to prevail! (I fervently hope the FAA never allows cell phone conversations on planes, though -- as a frequent train traveler, I know exactly how horribly annoying that would be.)

All in all, 2013 was actually a light travel year for me, but 2014 promises to be back to the usual level of touring insanity. It's been nice to be home more than I've been away, but I'm starting to itch to get back out onto the road. I'll be chronicling our band's adventures here - I hope y'all will come along for the ride.