Thursday, October 18, 2012

Oh, The Things We Saw

Between business and leisure, solo travel and highway boogieing with my spouse, we put a lot of miles on our car this year, including a round-trip journey from the Chicago suburbs to Albuquerque New Mexico. We nearly beat the path between the burbs and our MN hideaway to death. My honey and I journeyed up and down super slabs, pay-for highways and plenty of back roads, including miles of pinging gravel.

We've enjoyed lovely consistencies via our literal road travel versus airlines:

  • The comfort of our own leather car seats. (Adjustable lumbar support. YAY!)
  • No limitations on snacks or shampoo. (Hair looks great. Unbuttons jeans again.)
  • Alternative routes due to weather or whim. ("I've never been to Mabel MN. TURN LEFT HERE!")
  • Up close and personal scenery. (Fall's been glorious!)
  • Venue/menu choices. (Drive-through or cocktails?)
  • Unlimited baggage. (To fishing pole or golf clubs, that is the question.)
  • No rental vehicle snafus. (Let's hear it for an HONEST nonsmoking vehicle!)
  • No missed connections. (Do I have to count wrong turns?)
  • The ability to stop and go when we want to.
  • No running for gates or sitting on the tarmac.

Of course there were drawbacks too:

  • Couldn't watch a movie. (If I was the driver.)
  • No call button. (Unless one could count on one's spouse or traveling partner (TP) to pass one something.)
  • We couldn't change elevation to avoid bad weather. (And bridges can be icy.)
  • Traffic congestion occasionally played havoc with our schedule. (Especially if we didn't listen to our spouse (TP) and stayed on the main route. The words harassment and neener-neener come to mind.)
  • We couldn't eavesdrop on conversations around us. (Or get kicked in the back by a kid, unless he was ours, and they're 47 and 42, so no.)
  • We couldn't stand up and walk around while still "making time." (Cruise control only covers so much.)
  • Couldn't work on a laptop while you're driving.

Okay, we didn't follow this, but ...
STOP! I gotta get a picture
of THAT!
But one of the most enjoyable benefits, which, to be honest, also occasionally caused a time detriment, was the many unusual and interesting things we followed, as opposed to one of those ongoing and annoying two-hour stares at the crooked part in the back of the guy's head in the airline seat in front of us. You know, the guy who reclines his airline chair up against your knees?

I herewith offer a relaxing visual testimony to a few of our more recent-ish Favorite Follows. Enjoy the ride. Feel the pace. Imagine the fury of wrangling around with a cell phone to capture a moving shot. :)

Nothing like giant side-by-sides to help you make time.
Okay, not exactly a "follow" but ...

Giantest fan EVA!

Mega Bus touting $1 rides

Yep, that's the Trester Trolley
chugging up that hill in front of us!


Sometimes things GOING look like
they're COMING AT YOU.

Harvest Time!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Super 8 Update (poet and know it)

Super Eight Logo
After my September 4 post about my unhappy Super 8 stay (Whaaaa!), a few of you  encouraged me (YAY, and thank you!) to report the incident. So I sent a short note to Super 8 Customer Care via The Form that pops up under Super 8's "Feedback on my hotelstay". In it, I included a link to my blog post account of the gnarly details.

Within a day or two, I received a nice response email from Julie, an Internet Specialist with the Wyndham Hotel Group. Super 8 is now under their umbrella.  In case you're not aware how many other brands fall under that umbrella, and at which you could be earning Wyndham Rewards, check the bottom of that page. You might be surprised at the size of this alliance which includes Microtel, Ramada and Days Inn. [You will also find call-out boxes on the Super 8 home page: HEY STOCK CAR FANS. HEY RODEO FANS. Of course this got my attention because I do believe it was greasy stock car driver fingerprints that graced my keycard holder upon check-in. :)]

Julie thanked me for contacting them, apologized for my dissatisfaction (good business) and said I would hear directly, by a named timeline, from the hotel's manager to "assist" me "in reaching a resolution".

The response deadline date, also my 43rd wedding anniversary, came and went with nary a word from Super 8, but I did enjoy a wonderful breakfast out (blackened catfish omlet!) with my honey. (He ordered two eggs over easy. That's the way we roll.) Either the response of the manager was lost in the cosmos (always possible) or he didn't get to it. Oh, well, after that kind of stay, that's pretty much what I expected.

However, Julie then contacted me via phone (surprise, and terrific business) to see if I'd heard from him. I told her no, but that I sure appreciated her followup. She said the matter would be handled in house. She wanted to know what I expected by way of resolution.

Whoa! What an excellent question, one I hadn't actually thought about--well, aside from the whining part. What did I want? 

Since my mouth is always quick to speak, even when I haven't thought about much of anything, I told her I'd never asked for a "resolution". I guess all I really wanted was for The Powers that Be to know about it. After all, via the comments on my blog, seasoned travelers had encouraged me to Give Peace a Chance. I told her I doubted I'd be back that rural Super 8 way anyway; the incident was over. But I wished to have my complaints acknowledged, and to hopefully help spare anyone else the same yuck treatment. I told her I'd originally put my experience out there in part just to ask others to share their GOOD Super 8 experiences with me, so that I didn't write off the whole brand over that one experience.

The next day I missed a call from the Super 8 manager, which I later returned. He said he'd tried to contact me previously too, within the timeline. Nothing on my phone logs validated that, but then again, technical glitches sometimes do happen. My default is one of "benefit of the doubt" when it comes to technology, so I set aside my skepticism.

He was extremely engaging and apologetic. He said he speaks with his workers all the time about first impressions and the importance of little things, which was the gist of my post.

He THANKED ME for the specific feedback and said if I ever came that way again, I should let him know before I arrived so he could make sure everything was fine. He was going to go over all my complaints again with his employees. He mentioned something about keycard cover changes. (In case you missed the original post, you won't believe what I was handed at check-in. I posted the disgusting pictures.)

His attitude was humble, his apology charming, he sounded sincere. We hung up and that was that.

The next day in an unrelated conversation, a friend of mine shared her recent terrible experience at a new restaurant in town. She said her turkey burger tasted like the entire thing had come to the restaurant frozen, then was heated in a microwave. Since she had to wait an hour to get her food (strikes one and two), and because she was starving, she ate the fries, which she said were good. She did not, however, take even a second bite of the turkey burger, it was that bad.

When the waitress came around to ask if everything was okay, my friend, encouraged by her tablemate, told the waitress exactly what I just told you about the turkey burger. The waitress asked if she wanted something else to replace it, to which my friend replied, "No thanks." She had to get back to work and she was already more than an hour in.

When the bill came, the waitress had deducted $3.00, presumably for the turkey burger portion of the turkey burger/fries basket combo, not even half the combo amount.(Did they discount the value for the bite she took?)

There are two ways to handle customer service: one gets a job done, the other breeds extreme good will, something that packs a much heartier come-back-again wallop than a "Sorry" or a few token bucks. Since it was a new restaurant in a small town and word-of-mouth spreads quickly, and this was my friend's first impression (again I refer to my initial Super 8 post), I believe her entire meal should have been comped. My response to her story was REALLY? That's just bad business.

Which got me to thinking, oh, boy. 

When Wyndham asked what I was looking for by way of resolution after my Super 8 stay, like I said, I responded that I just wanted to let them know. I hoped to help spare future travelers the same horrid experience. My benefit-of-the-doubt self imagines that complaints will be taken seriously and corrective measures taken. And again, the Super 8 manager was friendly, humble, apologetic, thankful and sounded sincere. When I hung up, I felt satisfied because I'd received what I asked for. (Pollyanna here believes nobody else will ever have this problem again.) I was impressed with Wyhdham's speedy response and in particular, their follow through, especially since I'm not a heavy hitting Wyndham Rewards' customer. 

But since then (here comes the thinking part, oh, boy), since hearing the story about my friend's restaurant yuck and considering my response to it, I've been thinking about good will--and money-back guarantees. There are hotel chains out there with such offers. I've always been a fan of Hampton Inns. I see in a simple Google search that their 100% satisfaction guaranteed offer is front and center, even though I've never had cause to try to call in that marker. I know what to expect from them, and it's almost always 100% positive.

Who knows: maybe Super 8 has such a guarantee too, although I don't see up-front evidence, nor did web prowling produce such a promise. But if they did offer such a thing, and I knew about it, and if/when someone asked me about "resolution," I could have just said, SHOW ME THE MONEY!

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Dear Hoteliers, IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS! The story of A REAL SHOCKER of a "Greeting"

No matter how cheap economical or over-priced luxurious a hotel, it’s the little things that stick in my brain. Things like a sensible clock, a variety of pillows, a heating/air conditioning system that doesn’t sound like an off-balance washing machine. Or careless things like beverage rings on the furniture. (I stop typing a moment here to growl since the lowest paid on the totem pole usually delivers the most important impression.) Or bright cheery lighting versus dull light bulbs, so dull I need a minor’s light attached to my head. Complimentary or raping high-cost Internet service. A free breakfast with at least an ounce of protein versus an offering of doughnuts. A lavish manager’s reception, chips plus drinks to order, versus a weeks’-old bowl of dusty apples at the reception desk.

But it’s a hotel/motel’s first impression, especially a bad one, that triggers my high-alert alarm. While a few microns of dust under the television in my room (you know, that line of sight from the prone position?) might otherwise go uncharted, start me off with a bad first impression and I’m gunning for other areas of neglect. Like a few microns of dust under the television.

Mind you, I don’t need a manager’s reception or hot chocolate chip cookies to lure me back to a brand. In fact, I most often can’t afford to stay where they’re offered. And I don’t mind a simple bowl of fruit. No siree. In fact, I sometimes actually take a piece, and—wait for it-- eat it. But gimme that bruised bowl of dusty apples on a check-in desk, sans a desk clerk in sight to greet me, and I get itchy to grab my blacklist pen.

Nonetheless, even when I have to wait a few minutes for an employee to materialize, even if there is no newspaper or juicy morsel to pop in my mouth, if I get to my room and it’s clean, bright, smells fresh, doesn’t have a concave bed, nothing is crawling around on the floor or under the sheets, and there’s a semi-comfortable clean chair and a desk, I’m pretty forgiving about other things. I’m not much of a whiner—although I am one of those people who might have a private chat with the folks at the desk before I leave, especially when things run amuck. 

The following experience garnered a book-length chat, although when I left, I doubted my polite feedback would result in even a hiccup of change. You’ll see why.

For the first time in years, and due to a lack of choices in the rural area, I booked a room at a Super 8, which is now a subsidiary of Wyndham Worldwide

My very first shocking impression (and it went downhill from there) was enough to turn me off from ever booking a Super 8 again. If THIS is how they welcome new guests, I wonder about cleanliness in any other areas, like my sheets, the toilet or the carpet. It doesn't take long to imagine a stockpile of cost cutting shortcuts, inattentive management, germ laden nightmares and creepy crawly things that go bump in the night.

Seriously, this is how they handed me my keycard! Seriously. For real. Front and back. Real pictures. Of real “service” and first impressions. This alone nearly turned me off the entire chain—for the second time in my life.
When George and I married 43 years ago, every trip we took was on a budget nicely matched by Super 8 prices. The chain was founded in 1972 so for the most part, they were not only new, but clean and dependable. When you walked into the lobby and your room, you knew what you’d see, what to expect, right down to the pictures on the wall. I’d compare their initial dependability with what I expect and receive today from Hampton Inns.

We stuck with Super 8--were loyal to Super 8--well into the eighties, at which point reliability started to slip, boredom set in, and our financial situation had upped a notch. “No matter where we go in the country, George, it looks like the inside of a Super 8." Back-to-back stays with cleanliness issues turned me off the chain for good. Right up until earlier this year when I was invited to speak. In a rural area. In a wonderfully friendly little town with a raceway. (Perhaps that explains all the grease on the keycard cover, but it sure doesn't explain why I GOT IT!)

I was told there were only two local hotels in town, and that the Super 8 was recommended. By the locals who booked me. Who ought to know good from bad. Except now that I think about it, they never stay there, do they?

Perhaps I should have heeded a subliminal warning when the woman who booked me to speak invited me to stay in her home. I enjoyed her company, immensely, but not wanting to be "talked out" before I had to present three times in different venues the next day, I kindly declined and made my reservation. After all these years, I felt pretty confident Super 8 had upped their game. After all, they had that Wyndham connection going for them, and they had that whole sort-of-new-logo thing .... And they rebranded from Super 8 Motels to Super 8 International, which sounds way more awesome.

How bad could it be?

In case you missed it, please look at the keycard case pictures again. Don’t you wonder exactly what the desk clerk thinks your first impression of their establishment might be when you’re handed a grody mess like that? My thought was, “Super 8, where we really don’t give a crap.”

I realize this is a harsh way to judge an entire chain, and is in fact an unfair way to judge an international group. I even feel a teensy bit bad for yammering on about it. But ... Seriously? You handed me that? When that's my first impression, and that's all I have to go on ….

But wait, there’s more.

Even though I’d requested nonsmoking, I opened my room door and was nearly bowled over by the stagnant fog of exhaled tar and nicotine. I marched (okay, at my age it's more like a determined saunter) straight back to the desk and asked for another room, hopefully with a fresh keycard cover. “I’m afraid I don’t have any rooms that will be better,” she said, “but I can bring down some spray.” Which she did, which, as you can imagine, accomplished nothing other than to add another layer of stinky yuck.

I thought about the personal invite I’d declined and quivered at the thought of what the other motel in town must be like that was not recommended. But the hard cold reality: I was tired, I needed to get both some rest and some sleep, and it was too late to reinvite myself as a house guest.

Holding my breath, I checked the bathroom. My assessment: dated with smidges of moldy grout but otherwise “clean enough”. I removed the smoky smelling bedspread and checked the sheets. Paper thin but mostly white. Nothing moving. Flat pillows, but oh well, my only other option was sleeping in the car.

I moved to the small fridge, which I appreciate in a room. Score one, Super 8! When one travels on a budget, one doesn’t waste food. I always seem to have a doggie bag hermetically sealed to my fingertips when I walk into a hotel room, which I did after that day's five-hour drive.

Wow! Head start! Someone had left a Styrofoam carton containing a chocolatey dessert in the handy-dandy fridge. There didn’t appear to be mold around the edges (why do we risk taking a look?!), so perhaps it was from last night’s guest? (For the record, I've experienced this same Refrigerator Surprise in extremely expensive hotels too.) For a misguided nanosecond I considered downing it to calm myself and receive the benefits of the chocolatey *polyphenols that combat heart disease and may influence metabolism, therefore making me slimmer, not to mention the wonders of antioxidants and flavonoids, which … do something good. Instead I ceremoniously—as in STRIKE THREE!—marched (no hint of saunter) the container to the front desk. Where it was received with a smile, an almost-but-not-quite apology, and where it quickly disappeared to a back room.

Oh, boy.

Before reluctantly crawling into bed that night, I turned the fan on high, closed tight my eyes and said my prayers. Big time prayers covering all types of requests that I please be spared from contracting all kinds of stuff. I finally dozed off. I didn’t bother with the free breakfast the next morning because, well, KEYCARD COVER, and by this time I was afraid I might find a chocolate dessert cut up in little squares passed off as breakfast bites.

Ending on a positive note, during my stay a carpet cleaning company busily spruced up the hallways and empty-room carpets. At least I witnessed that.

My one regret is that I didn't come home and send a letter to the highest people I could find at both Super 8 and Wyndham. But honestly, after an experience like that--my overall first impression of Super 8s after nearly a thirty-year absence--I just blacklisted them from my realm of options.There was no way for management to undo that which was already done, starting with the littlest thing: the keycard holder. I'd rather add a hundred more inconvenient out-of-my-way driving miles next time rather than risk another gross experience. 

I understand my decision to just Let The Whole Thing Go. These days I strive to conserve my energy for ongoing battles that must be waged. But blacklisting an entire chain after one experience also makes me kinda sad. Sad for other Super 8 establishments and their hard working careful employees who I'm sure must be out there. In fact, if you’ve recently experienced a terrific Super 8 stay(s), please post about it here in the comments. I’d like to know there is another side to this chain, one that might—might—lure me back on a tired night on the road.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Reservation Roulette (travel planning on a budget)

I stare at my monitor through zombie eyes. Planning a multi-leg trip on a budget sucks the life out of one's brain.There are a gajillion inroads to choose from. Expedia, Kayak, Priceline, just to name a few, each offering their own benefits and dozens of alternatives. 

I also check in with my loyalty (hahahaha!) rewards programs, which are multiplying like dust bunnies. Because prices at my good ol' tried-and-true favorites have often eked their way up and out of my shrinking budget, I've been forced to engage with alternatives. Any and all of them.

Come directly to us, to our URL, they entice. We guarantee you the best deal! they promise. We have a terrific rewards program for which you've earned enough points to receive a free stay, I imagine.

As if.

Back when the boys were young and we only traveled once a year for vacation, it was so simple. 

  • Where’s the closest and cheapest hotel/motel to our destination?  (Likely a Super 8. BOOKED!)
  • Where is the next McDonald's? (Likely just around the corner. PARKED!)

But now that I’m a seasoned business traveler,  I expect too much, know too much, ask too many questions, have too many options. I've experienced what can happen when things run amuck, know how easy it is to be ripped off deceived taken advantage of miss a detail.

  • What does this price include? 
  • By the time they add parking and the internet charges, is that room still a good deal? 
  • Do they charge for carry-ons?
  • Is this coupon for the rental car going to save me money, or is it cheaper using AAA?
  • Wonder if that hotel still has AARP rates available?
  • If I choose this best-price set of flights, yet I’m knowingly flirting with missed connections... Hel-LO! 
  • The neighborhood has changed to not-so-safe anymore. 
  • What are my flight alternatives if/when weather turns bad? Perhaps I should choose another airport.
  • Sure, I got that super-good, uber upgraded Priceline steal on that hotel, but transportation hassles to get from their location to the book gig ruined my day and offset any savings.

With my insane version of Reservation Roulette, I’m currently holding five hotel bookings for the same dates. I think. Due to my new loyalty program  frenzy, not all chains could email me a confirmation. "After we hang up, just join our loyalty program online," they said, this after I called to inquire about a few amenities, made my reservations and THEN learned about their program. "Just give us your new loyalty number at check in." This means some of the confirmation numbers I found scribbled on the back of an envelope don't yet show a match in my new loyalty accounts.

Terrific, Charlene, you DOLT!

Knowledge is sometimes not power, but vexing, hexing and dogging crazy making. For instance, I know that various booking prices are cheapest on certain days of the week. Sometimes. I’m living with the tormenting fallout of comparing prices every day or two, switching reservations as choices appear and disappear, dollar signs excel and dip, new hotels come to my attention. It is during schemes like this I really do wish I’d won the lottery so I didn’t have to think about travel on a budget. Otherwise, who needs the headache of all that money, all those friends and relatives you don't know asking for massive amounts of  moolah so they can go someplace without all this cheapo planning torment?

But for now, budget questions prevail:
  •  Does a manager’s reception really matter to me? (Right about now, a cocktail sounds like a terrific idea, especially a free one!) 
  • What have others said about this location? Do I trust them? Maybe they're impossible people who complain about everything or are related to the owner. 
  • Do I need a restaurant nearby? Their continental breakfast might not include an ounce of protein.
  • Is there a refrigerator and/or microwave in the room? 
  • Where is that bedbug list posted again, and why didn’t I bookmark it the last time?! 
  • Okay, I never heard of this chain, but thankfully, research shows travelers did enjoy their stays ... Oh. Back in 2008. 

**She sighs.**

The only reason I haven’t locked in the Very Cheapest Prices yet is because to do that, you must pay ahead with nonrefundable bucks, and pieces of my plans are still in flux. My biggest fear is that I’ll forget to cancel the reservations I eventually leave behind, so rather than saving myself money, I’ll end up paying for three rooms in three locations for the same night because they took my credit card info to hold them, and I lost track by writing on the backs of envelopes.


At some point, I’ll run out of time to continue playing this game. To be honest, that will be a relief. But until then, although I know I can’t allow twenty bucks to overrule my safety or rob me of sleep, twenty bucks times a bunch of nights can make the difference between a few nice meals out versus another bowl of Wendy’s chili.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Wendy’s chili (only 310 calories in a large with 26 grams of protein), which is why I often buy two of them at a time when I have a refrigerator and microwave in my hotel room.  Which reminds me, I need to recheck the amenities at two of those places…

And so my travel shenanigans continue. At least for now.


Out of curiosity, does anyone else play this tormenting game? Or do you just trip your trigger, make your reservations and move on, satisfied that any money saved wouldn't be worth the hassles or your time? 

Please let me know in the comments section. So I can either set up my therapy session or tell me husband, SEEEEEEE?! I'M NOT ALONE!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

When in Rome (or Minnesota), SOUVENIR THYSELF!

When I think back on all the souvenirs I've purchased on vacation, or as What-did-you-bring-me? business trip "gifts", I sail through a variety of responses.

  • I am lucky to have experienced so many swell destinations. (well, not that one bathroom)
  • Whatever happened to most of those souvenir trinkets? (junk pile)
  • So glad I bought those heavy-duty tee shirts 15 years ago, otherwise I might have forgotten I was there. (still wearing them, complete with frayed necklines)
  • I still wish I'd purchased the better necklace on that cruise. (wrong cheap-o decision; beads everywhere)
  • Buying consumable regional goods like jams and jellies is practical, but not as memory branding. (belly fat)
  • Wonder how much I've spent, altogether, on souvenirs? (don't even thinkaboutit)
  • How well do souvenirs define the region? (Don't most sell the same slogans with different city names?)

For better or for worse, souvenirs are markers of time.

Imagine this. You are blindfolded and given a headset powerful enough to block out chatty Captain Announcements. (Oh, baby! suggestions anyone?) You take a flight to "somewhere." After you arrive at your surprise destination, you're led into a car and driven to the closest souvenir/discount store where your impediments are removed. 

I doubt it would take you long to figure out where you were, especially if you were near the beach or circled back into the airport.Towels, tote bags, hats ... all announcing You Were (are) Here!

Well, I didn't experience the kidnapped-to-play-the-souvenir game. But I have to admit I laughed out loud when I saw this Snuggie on the shelf during one of my routine visits away from home. "Only in Minnesota," I said out loud to the stranger standing next to me. Because he was Minnesota nice, he did not respond.

Of course my comment wasn't really true. This type of camouflage everything -- sunglasses, sheets, chairs, lingerie, tents, rifle cases, doll clothes -- can be found anywhere hunters lurk (and hide, what with all that camy). Camouflage isn't just a force of gamesmanship; in some areas, it's a way of life. And there is protocol.

Case in point. Several years ago I was browsing in Fleetfarm in Winona MN (not to be confused with Farm and Fleet in LaCrosse WI) when I came upon a rack of men's insulated hoodies. On a terrific end-of-season sale. I tried one on and thought WARM! Soft. Nice.The price is right! Who cares if it's blaze orange; it'll be easy to find in the closet. So I bought it.

Several months later, I was scheduled to met my grown hunting/fishing son at the local Winona Perkins Restaurant and Bakery. It was a chilly day. I grabbed my cozy hoodie and headed out.

"Mom!" my manly son said when I arrived, eyebrows sailing. He leaned toward me, looked right and left, then all but whispered, "It's not the season for blaze orange." (This might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much.)

A blaze orange fashion Faux Pas? Who knew? The only thing I was hunting for was pancakes. Why should it matter what color anything I wore in a PERKINS?!

In case you're wondering, no, I didn't buy the souvenir (practical?) camouflage Snuggie for my grandgirlies. I do have to admit, however, that I have purchased my Minnesota sweeties a few camy hats and articles of clothing. Pink camoflauge, to be exact. And to the best of my knowledge, pink Camy was a bit of a fashion statement this winter.

Then again, I bought said pink camy items in Minnesota, at least one state that is home to the camouflage Snuggie.

Seriously, they only sold Snuggies in red and blue in the Walgreen's in the Chicago suburbs. I guess practical is as practical does. A fun souvenir to one person is a practical way of life to another.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

All Together Now: WHAT ABOUT THE FEES?!

A clever chap’s blog just fired me up. Andy T. Le Peau, associate publisher for editorial at InterVarsity Press, posted a tongue-in-cheek speculation as to how it might look if publishers “look to the airline industry for inspiration.” Since I’m an author and a traveler, his topic nabbed my attention. Odds are you’re a reader with an astute business head, so please take a moment right here and now to read his thoughts before you move forward. His post is short.

[Pause, you're reading ... and, YOU'RE BACK!]

Oh, boy, Mr. LePeau, and AMEN!  I sure do resonate with the preposterousness of it all.

For instance, some book stores don’t allow exchanges, but they will issue store credit for a returned book, barring a few circumstances. Otherwise someone could buy a book, take it home, read it, bring it back and exchange it for another one. (Local book store as lending library. It happens.) But when they do offer an exchange or store credit, how nuts would they be to charge a fee for that type of service? If they did, who’d shop at their store, ever again? Whereas with the airlines, you don’t want to sneakily use the seat you need to exchange. You just want … a different one. Something better for your circumstances, or your body. Yet, the airlines charge a service fee PLUS the upcharge, and we shell out. And fly them again and again. [Southwest Airlines, I do believe you are among the teensy few who still treat passengers with respect, charging only for the difference in current fares at the time of the exchange, even if a live person helps. I seal your mention with a big kiss! ] 

Whether we're talking about an exchanged book or an airline seat, the “product” we leave behind can and likely will be resold to another chap or chapette. It’s not like we consumed it.

Yes, I understand there is employee time involved in scheduling changes. Someone has to pay said employee to do these things. Although shipping and handling fees on Internet and catalog purchases are annoying and sometimes exorbitant, it does take manpower to accomplish the task. People need to earn a living. 

But in the end, doesn't that still circle back to us? We’re often the ones facilitating such online changes. At the very least, airlines could consider our time a fair exchange (pay us instead of themselves), which might look something like this: airlines trade at least one of their scurrilousness surcharges for the time we spend buying upgrades or making our own scheduling adjustments. I'm sure someone could invent a handy app for that.

You know, I feel suddenly compelled to do some tricky math involving OUR TIME: We pay for the seat, the difference in fares if we change the seat, do all the work AND pay an additional   fee for the privilege to give the airlines even more money for the more expensive seat, perhaps even the seat we already earned with hard earned airlines miles?

Okay, now I’m mad.

This past weekend, I watched an awe inspiring segment, video here, on the CBS Sunday Morning Show about the digital revolution. It included an interview with the vibrant Molly Katchpole, the young woman who posted the original effort to revolt against banks (read Bank of America, the first villain) inexplicably deciding to charge us fees to access our own money. (Note, when the banks tried to charge us the way the airlines do, a revolt ignited!) The CBS segment highlighted and affirmed the power we wield when we turn our collective efforts toward determination.

So, is there no way we can put a stop to these blood sucking airline fees?

Seriously, imagine what would happen if the publishing industry—if any industry (keep the banking industry in mind here, aside, of course, from Freddie and Fannie and … the imagination can only stretch so far)—followed the airlines’ lead by so dishonoring its customers. What say ye, road warriors? Is there something we can do to launch change, rather than continue counting on the government or the airlines themselves to stop the insanity? What do you think?

Or are we just doomed to suck it up and pay, no matter how dumb it looks when we see such a comparison lined out by someone in the publishing business.

I think I need a stress tab now. Thanks for that, Mr. Le Peau! :)

In the process of full disclosure, I know Mr. Le Peau. He's a really smart and likable guy. I published my first book with InterVarsity Press, way back in 1991. DON'T MISS YOUR KIDS, they'll be gone before you know it. It is (subliminal message) still in print and available through InterVarsity Press and via other resources. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

When Small Things Matter (or should they?)

Last week, we purchased a new car for hubby. Well, new to us. It had 15,000 miles on it, which put the make, model and year we at long last narrowed our choices down to, in a range we could afford. We felt good about the deal. 

Today, I'll spare you most of the sordid shopping details, aside from the One Thing I really want to talk about, which I shall do later. Suffice it to say that on numerous occasions, our (hubby and I together, to use the word loosely) car buying experiences have been so horrendous, and so funny (in hindsight), that I've sold several stories about the hysterics and drama, the wars and compromises, the song that might best be titled I Left My Spouse at the Car Dealer Blues. If one of us likes it, the other doesn't. Exasperating is the word that comes to mind. I'm told couples can relate.

Having said all of that, we drove happily home in a 2011 Toyota Avalon Limited. (Factoid: the average age buyer for the Avalon is 64.) For two people who qualify for all senior discounts, not just some, we found the Sizzling Crimson Mica color quite exotic. It goes well with our cement driveway and the earrings I wore the day we signed the papers. Su-weet!

We traded in George's 2001 Buick LeSabre with 122,000+ miles. He loved that car; it served us well. My car, a 2003 Lexus RX300, has nearly 120,000 miles on it. We bought it used in 2003 with 5000 miles. I'm still in a love affair with my black comfy beauty. Both the LeSabre and the Lexus ran well, but we decided it was just time to up one, especially since we have a couple long trips in front of us, so we picked the oldest vehicle for our farewells.

I'm sure the Avalon's tricked out Navigation System will come in handy since we love to travel back roads. We adore the hands'-free functions, as well as the bazillion other fancy things the car offers, including reclining back seats and a back-up camera. It's HUGELY roomy. Whatever you need, we have a button for that. As soon as we figure them out and stop turning on our windshield wipers instead, life will be grand. The Avalon's ride is amazing. Street noise is missing. (Nice!) The same day we picked it up, we drove to Minnesota and averaged nearly 31 miles per gallon. YES!

But none of that is what I really want to talk about today. When we were signing the papers—literally—something struck in my craw, and I can't seem to get over it. Perhaps it's because I'm a seasoned traveler. But before I deliver the craw-sticker, let us recap: we dropped a bucketload of money on a new-to-us car, purchased at a Toyota dealer so large, it has access to a test track. (Yes, we used it. Perhaps I'll post about that another time.) Their service department waiting area is pleasant and well lit; the ladies' room is regal. The ginormous overall facility is spotless. But when we went to sign the papers, back in the secret bowels of the building, the gentleman handed us each a very familiar ballpoint pen with Hilton HHonors  printed on it. One was slightly chewed and missing the cap clip.

"Seriously? These are the pens you give people to sign contracts?" I said this out loud, volume slightly up, without a trace of humor in my voice because I felt none. I didn't sound angry, mind you, but … serious.

"Hey, they were free," the guy said with a smile, thinking this was all in good fun.

"This is pretty tacky." Again, no smile from me. "It's just wrong to hand these to your Toyota buying customers."

"What kind of pen do you want?" he asked, now sounding confused, perhaps slightly offended himself, which I'm sure I sounded by now.

"One that doesn't say Hilton HHnors™  on it. Maybe one that says Toyota and includes your dealer name?" I refrained from adding, One that hasn't been chewed.

"Those disappear," the guy said.

"You mean the same way these pens disappeared from your hotel room? They're advertising. They're supposed to disappear."

By now, the guy figured out I was not kidding, about any of this. He commandeered the Hilton pens and swapped them out for what he called the "plain Bic pens with no character."

"Good," I said. "That's much better." At last, I smiled.

For the record, I am a proud Hilton HHonors™  member, and likely already have a bunch of said pens here and there and everywhere in my travel bags. And my husband and I didn't keep the plain Bic pens, which we weren't offered to keep anyway. To be honest, I don't need another pen and likely wouldn't have taken it unless the person handing us the pens would have said, "By the way, keep the pen, maybe in your car. It has our phone number on it in case you ever need to call."

Since this episode, my husband has brought up the topic with every friend we've visited. "And she didn't have a trace of humor in her voice," he says. "She wasn't kidding." I can never decide whether he's more amazed by the Hilton pens, or my strong objection to them.

(Pause two minutes here while I ask. I can't believe I haven't asked before this!)

I called a quick kitchen-table meeting and made my query. George's response, "I was surprised this bothered you so much. I mean, I'll admit it was strange to be handed Hilton pens, and you could have mentioned it. But maybe you didn't need to sound so … demeaning about it."

In all honesty, since he said that, I feel a little embarrassed. It was surely not my intent to demean the guy! Talk about tacky and disrespectful, Charlene! But I did want to make a point: in business, small things matter. Toyota makes a good product. The sales' team (and of course their managers) had worked hard to give us a quality experience and seal the deal. Why ruin it with a final tacky action? Come to think of it, I guess it felt kind of demeaning, to use George's word of the day, to be handed some guy's chewed pen from one of his hotel rooms, a feeling which is perhaps what set me off. I mean, go ahead, collect the hotel room pens, dude. Just don't hand them to your Toyota customers.

But now, I'm curious: am I the odd one here? Barring my apparently insensitive response to the guy's tacky chewed pen offering (okay, it still grinds me), what do you think? Should this kind of traveling business detail matter? Say if American Airlines handed you a pen with Fairfield Inn and Suites printed on it to sign your credit card purchase for first-class tickets, would you even take notice?

Please weigh in with a comment. Help save a marriage. (Just kidding. Seriously.)


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Bucket Lists and Contests

I received an email from American Airlines enticing me with a come-on that says, "Been there. Done that." It's a chance to win one of three trips I have on my bucket list. I know this because they said that after I win it, I can cross the trip off my bucket list. (American Airlines: We read minds!)

All I'd have to do to win one of these experiences (after I register and read the small print and select which trip I desire, making sure to follow the exact instructions provided), is to then, before March 19 of this year, book an airline trip through American Airlines. To enter. And then, if they pick me out of the hundreds of thousands of entries (or however many), VOILA!

Although their trips are, for many, undoubtedly already on your bucket list, I wasn't hugely interested in any of them. Once you check out the link, you might wonder what is wrong with me that I neither crave a Napa Valley Excursion, a Paris Fashion Immersion, or an opening day Baseball Experience in NYC. If I even had a bucket list, my travel wishes would skew more toward ALASKA again! Or what about IRELAND! We have so many old friends in Florida now! Wouldn't it be nice to putter around and visit them before we're all dead? But that's just me. I'm not a huge wine fan (whiskey, please), I'm definitely not into fashion, and although I do love baseball, unless one of the NYC teams is playing the Cubs ... (Why do I torture myself?)

In order to win, you have to have an AA Advantage #, be 21 years of age, and make sure you use the same email to both register and order tickets.You must have somewhere you need to fly, and buy those tickets by the deadline. You also might want to read the entire list of official rules (link located on the choices page), barring you're not already running out of time to achieve your bucket list--especially if you want to allow time to read the privacy statements about what they can do with your information. Prizes are worth $17,000 each (they will award one of each), so you also have to be able to afford to pay the taxes. It says so in those rules.

I supposed you have to be nuts not to register, because, hey, it's free, and it could be fun. All trips, even to your local Denny's, can be filled with adventure and frivolity if you're with the right people, correct? They're all four-day trips, and they are for two. It doesn't say you have to take your spouse or even your significant other. In fact, from what I can tell, you don't even have to be one of the two. But then again, I didn't read all that fine print because I'm now too busy working on my bucket list, since even AA thinks I have one.

In the process of full disclosure, I did register. I plan on taking up a collection to pay those taxes, should I win--and I am, seriously, the luckiest person I've ever met. I'm in for the NYC baseball experience. By the time I read that I'd get to spend time with "a baseball legend," receive a tour of NYC (I do love the energy of that place!), a "spa experience," (okay, they started getting my serious attention), a $2500 MasterCard gift card (to procure a few items on my shiny new bucket list), and dine at Red Rooster Harlem (I'm definitely in now: there's FOOD!), I found myself seriously HOPING to win, this after my whatever beginnings.

But my problem is this: I have no airline reservations to make, which is their motivation for offering the prizes: FLY US. But just in case a surprise journey should pop up by mid-March, when I'll be doing a little book touring, albeit driving, you can bet I'll try to fly AA, just to have a shot at winning. I can already taste those mm-mm ballpark dogs. With my MC gift certificate, I'll be able to afford them.

**I can't imagine why I wrote about this! My personal advertising might cause you to enter, thereby lowering my odds. Then again, maybe if you win, you'll take ME!**

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Negotiating Life's Speed Bumps (take heed)

Feel it?
Sometimes, we temporarily need to let go of a few Good Things in order to handle the rest of the Good Things—and a few rocky ones as well. 

Alas, my TravelingLaughs blog posts fell among the “backburnered for a spell”.  (My apparent definition of “a spell”:   Basically since May 2010. Where does time go?!)  Too many deadlines, too much stress, not enough of me to go around. Yada-yada.

But the main reason I had to temporarily uncurl my fingers from a few ongoing due dates:  too many compiling health issues. 

Need a break?
Not surprisingly, the health issues were induced/exacerbated by the deadlines and stress and … you get the picture.  Maybe you’ve been there.  Maybe you ARE there. (I pause here and fire up a prayer for those currently living in those crazed trenches.) Add in a heart monitor, a biopsy, endless medical tests, a high-rise worth of worry and insurance papers, and … fast-forward to this brief explanation about my absence.

The Good News:  I’m ba-ack (at least once in awhile) because after a steep learning curve, I’m wiser (do not ask my husband about this), better paced (for a slow person), and for the most part, pretty well mended. I’m also old, getting wrinklier, but still considering myself fascinating.

It seems not one of the numerous health issues I have--and I “have” several wonky ones, including a rare benign tumor--is going to kill me. YAAAAAAAAAAAAAY! There is a time for coping, a time for sucking it up, a time for stopping or at least slowing down, and a time to resume one’s New Normal. Welcome to my world!

As for travel, I no longer board many airplanes, for which I am grateful. This coming May, we’ll be attending a family wedding in Albuquerque. George and I have already decided we’re going to drive, a plan that used to make my nose hairs curl. But these days, Post Physical Meltdown, there is something lovely about the pace of driving, the ability to “Take that back road, George!”,  to stop at local cafes and see a bit more of this great country through something other than a Martian’s-eye view--although sometimes that view is breathtaking. Perhaps driving will even help me adjust more normally to Albuquerque’s elevation. The last few times we flew in, it took at least two days for the headache to subside.

In accordance with my new dedication to living wiser, I herewith proclaim: the mother of the groom should not have a headache throughout the festivities, just because she was in a flying hurry to get to the wedding. (EXCITING! However, due to the casualness of the wedding--but mostly for the continuing betterment of my health--I am totally NOT reading the stressful information on that mother of the groom link!) We shall take our time, see the sites along the way, arrive a couple days ahead of schedule, press through the adjustment, and, as a result, be in our finest shape to witness and enjoy the miracle and blessing of Love.

Perhaps it’s a good day for you to check your schedule, see if you can’t find at least one upcoming road-warrioring trip that allows you a little breathing room. Maybe a tweek here, an extra four hours there before you have to fly out or home. Maybe you can even skip one of those trips. For Real.

These are pretty cool.
They're made out of 100% recyclable
materials, and can be moved--to where you
need speed bumps the MOST!
Get the metaphor?!?!?!

Once you’ve experienced burnout and helped crash-land your own health, you feel it’s your responsibility to at least suggest a few speed bumps in the traveling lives of others.

The Voice of Experience