Retirement Lesson #2
Making travel arrangements without an assistant are a challenge for a retired executive. Welcome to the “normal” world. Let’s say you want to take your spouse on a trip to New York City. First you need airplane tickets. Securing well-priced airline tickets requires time, patience, diligence, and frustration.
There are lots of discount ticket websites but most sell highly restrictive tickets. Sometimes, you can buy tickets on lesser-known airlines, which have a tendency to go out of business at inconvenient times. Even on legitimate bigger airlines, your plans may change, but your tickets often do not. To understand ticket limitations and restrictions, you can search the airline website and if you excelled in memorizing physics textbooks when in school, you should do okay understanding various ticket restrictions. You can also call a ticket reservation person, but accessing a human being is typically another challenge.
Generally, to reach a real person, you dial the desired airline number and hear a recorded friendly voice. You listen intently trying to block out the noise of your dog, which is barking at someone walking past your house. It is not easy; your hearing is not as sharp as it once was.
“Shut up Duke,” you shout, further diminishing the ability to hear the tape-recorded message. Duke barks louder.
“Press 1 for English,” says the voice.
You manipulate your Smart Phone to try to find the keypad and press “1” quickly, narrowly avoiding trying to make a reservation in Spanish.
“Press 1 for new reservations,” the recording now says. You press “1” with a growing sense of confidence.
“Press 1 for domestic reservations.” You press “1”, feeling progress is good and a human being is waiting just seconds away.
Then the music plays. This is not a good sign. It means you are on hold because there is no human available to talk to you. The music is poor; it is like being trapped in an elevator for a very long time. Apparently this was one of the CIA torture techniques that was subsequently been banned as inhumane. This is the airlines way of punishing you for wanting to speak with a person. The music continues for several minutes; you need to use the bathroom and have other things to do, but you are afraid of missing the human if you put the phone down. Finally, you rush to the bathroom only to return to a quiet phone; the human came and departed. Maybe, their sophisticated electronics recognized when you put the phone down, so they can disconnect.
You dial the number again. “Press 1 for English” says the voice, as you restart the process.
After wasting considerable and what you previously considered precious time, you reach a human being.
“I need two tickets to New York City, flying from San Diego on October 1,” you say having organized and prepared for this conversation. “ I would like to use my accumulated miles,” you say. During your lifetime of flying, you have accumulated hundreds of thousands of miles that theoretically can be converted to free airline tickets. You have been waiting years for this moment. You are finally beginning to relax.
“The only flights that have mileage seats available on your itinerary are routed through Africa and have four stops and plane changes,” replies the agent.
“But it’s a holiday with my wife. We can’t take two days just to fly to New York,” you complain. Surely your elite status will cause the agent to find a better route.
“There are direct flights,” she replies, “but a business class seat is $4,000. A coach seat is $500.” The new coach seats are designed for people with no legs. You were a senior executive, and you are not going to fly more than five hours with no place for your legs and the guy in front of you sitting in your lap.
Normally, your assistant would make a few more calls including to a particular travel agent who has access to some good deals and likes her. Eventually she would find suitable seats and routing, but now you have three choices, and the agent is getting a bit impatient. You can hang up and start the long and frustrating process over with someone else, you can buy coach seats and likely die from deep vein thrombosis, or you can buy the overpriced upgraded tickets. You pay the price for the more comfortable seats.
The primary alternative to working through the customer unfriendly airline environment is to buy lots of expensive tickets to gain a higher elite status. The more you spend, the more status you earn. It reminds me of buying lottery tickets; the more you buy the better your chances, but your odds are still not that good. So you buy more and more expensive airline tickets and accrue more unusable miles in search of people who will answer the phone when you call. This is a clever airline business strategy.
Having bought the expensive airline tickets, your journey has just begun. The challenge of navigating the airport will test you more than even buying tickets.
But that strategy is in Lesson #3.