Friday, October 28, 2011

Air travel drama without leaving home

I don’t know what it is about me that attracts such horrible luck when it comes to air travel, but today I learned that my luck is so bad, I don't even need to get near an airport. Just booking a trip online is an enormous hassle in my cursed world.

I spent so much money today. I scheduled two upcoming trips – one to go home to see family for the holidays and another to visit friends in Minnesota. (Yes, Minnesota in the winter. That part is not bad luck, but bad timing. Brrr.) Christmas is two months from now, so I have reached the point where the airfare is going to steadily increase as the date comes closer. Even two months in advance, a round-trip ticket to the airport nearest my family is between $800-1200. (Well, technically there was another option that had me leaving around 4 in the afternoon, taking two layovers and finally arriving at my destination at 8am the next morning, but I do not consider spending the night in the airport to be a viable option only to save $75.) So, for the fourth year in a row my holiday trip will be split between an overpriced one-way ticket to my home airport and 22-hours on Amtrak. This trip still cost me $500 and an entire day of my life will be spent on a train or in a station, but I will probably get a lot of reading done. So that’s something. It’s very frustrating to spend that much money when I only have one vacation day plus the three day weekend to take off of work. But, what can you do? That’s what happens when you move 1,000 miles from home.

The trip home wasn’t the real problem, though. The bad luck became apparent when trying to schedule the trip to Minnesota. I began thinking about it when the airfare was around $200, but then I didn’t get all of the details worked out in time and when I booked the trip today, the price had gone up considerably. I think this is the first time ever that I have paid extra to take a non-stop flight, but it is Minnesota in winter and I need to be there by Friday evening so I didn’t want to risk a layover nightmare. I found a suitable flight on one of the travel sites and when I tried to book it, I received an error message that said that the flight availability had changed. I tried again and saw the same flight was still available, but now it was $35 more expensive than it was 30 seconds ago. So, I went for a similar non-stop flight, same thing – the error message came up with the change in flight availability. $35 more expensive. So, I went directly to the airline’s website to check availability and prices.

The airline’s website prices were the same, so I took a dreaded 6:30 a.m. flight to save some money. When I went to check out, I learned that if I apply for their credit card, I will receive $50 statement credit on this purchase. I look over the credit card terms and there’s no yearly fee for the first year, $95 each year after that. I shouldn’t apply for another card because I already have three hard inquiries on my credit report because I consolidated some debt onto some new interest-free cards, so I know it will lower my credit score, but $50 is $50. I applied for the card and received an approval message and the information I needed to use the card right away. Okay, it’s worth it to save fifty bucks.

I must have thought my luck had changed for a moment because of course I should have known I would not save $50 from an airline website. When I tried to use the new credit card for the purchase, I received an error message that I could not use it because the pre-approved credit limit was only $200 and the cost of the ticket exceeded that. Fantastic. Now I have a new credit card that will eventually have a yearly fee, I have a hard inquiry lowering my credit score, and I don’t even get the $50 credit. Great. What the hell was I thinking getting a credit card associated with an airline? With my luck, it is going to get lost in the mail and someone will steal my identity before I even get a chance to use the thing. Oh well. I hope whoever steals my identity doesn’t have their heart set on anything that costs more than $200. And God help them if they try to use it to buy plane tickets with it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I mentioned last week that I wanted to write about the movie Drive, but was kind enough not to subject you to my weak attempt at a film review. It's a film that is worth seeing, but I left the theater thinking, “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.” I can’t imagine anyone having a different reaction. It’s a film that is very hard to classify, and leaves you thinking about it for days to come. I think reviewer Catherine Bray sums it up much better than I can.

Anytime I see a movie trailer with lots of action, explosions and badass scenes, I have a visceral reaction and want to jump off my couch and head out to the movie theater and see it immediately. Even if the plot is absurd (see: Real Steel), I get sucked in by all the action. The trailer for Drive is full of action, but it does not belong in the same class as the average action film. They tend to be designed for entertainment purposes, not to provide depth or soul searching or Oscar nominations. They exist just to add some good, fast fun to our mundane lives. Drive definitely does not fall into that category, and there are extended periods where it is not action packed at all. Much of the story focuses on development of relationships between the characters with very little dialogue and with a musical score that I hated. The character development added to the depth of the film and the fact that the actors did not depend upon dialogue made Ryan Gosling’s performance so much stronger.

Perhaps it is the early quietness of the film that makes the action so much more exciting. There are moments when it seems like not much is happening, and suddenly you are watching fast-paced action and brutal violence. I do not just throw around the label "brutal violence", either. I'm talking American History X, teeth-on-the-curb-scene brutal. It’s intense. Ryan Gosling is intense. His character speaks so infrequently that when he does, it is not to be taken lightly. Even what seems to be casual conversation with a small child watching cartoons reveals something about the core of his character. The filmmakers do not dumb things down for the audience, but when it is all said and done, you are left to decide for yourself how you feel about the movie and the characters. Or, like me, you may have to take a couple of days to process. I think that is the mark of a good film. When you walk out of the theater and continue to think about what you have just seen.

Apparently I am not the only one who had a ponderous reaction to the film. On October 9th, someone inexplicably threw a hot dog at Tiger Woods during the Open. It was revealed a few days later that the dog pitcher was inspired by Ryan Gosling’s character, which inspired him to do something “courageous and epic.” This is rather bizarre, as there was no hot dog throwing in the film. In fact, I don’t even remember anyone eating in the film at all. It’s hard to determine how that connection was made.

But the reactions to the film go beyond the hurling of mystery meats. The Hollywood Prospectus at has a great article about a lawsuit inspired by the film. I don't know what that says about the film, but it's definitely having an affect on audiences. Perhaps not the affect the filmmakers had hoped for, but an inspiration nonetheless. But I don't write film reviews, so you'll have to see it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Film reviews are hard to write

I have been to the movies four times in the last seven days. Four times! I don't mean watching movies on an HBO binge, I actually went to four different theaters in the DC Metropolitan area and watched four different films. That seems like a lot.

The reason I bring this up is because I have been considering how to bridge a gap between life and blog. When I had some severe cashflow problems, I sought out advance screenings for movies in the area as a form of free entertainment. In exchange for standing in line for an hour or more and sitting in less-than-ideal seats, I have been able to see films before they are released to the public. I recently realized that having seen so many films, I talk about movies a lot. I'm starting to feel a sense of responsibility to continue to go to screenings because so many people approach me and ask if I've seen a film, or if I can recommend a good film for a date, or if it's suitable to see with children, etc. I am beginning to enjoy being the go-to movie person. The demographic at my workplace is such that I have very (very!) little in common with most of my coworkers. Movies are universal. You can talk to anyone about them. It has given me a chance to get to know my coworkers a little better and gives us something to talk about. It has been nice to have that experience to talk to about to friends and coworkers.

Since I have seen so many new flicks, I have considered writing movie reviews on the blog. A night at the movies is an expensive endeavor these days. A film for two people with beverages and refreshments can set you back $40 or more. That is a lot of scratch for a two-hour (on average) experience. Since I have the privilege of seeing some of them in advance, it feels natural to write about them before people go out and spend their hard-earned money. But film reviews are hard to write. If you give away information in a review that the filmmaker intended to reveal organically, you are doing the reader a great disservice.

Perhaps I'm just bitter. On weekday mornings I listen to the Tony Kornheiser radio show and he has someone on once a week to talk about movies. I am not a fan of this woman. In the not-so-recent past, she spoke about a film that I wanted to see very badly. I had been anticipating the film and the day before it's release she said something to the effect of, "They do a great job of building suspense. You will see the shaking of leaves and the destruction left behind, but you never actually see the monster until the end of the film."

I was so pissed off.

It may not sound like a huge spoiler, but I assure you that it is. All of the care that was taken by the filmmakers to build that suspense is now marred. The whole point of suspense is to keep the viewer in a state of anticipation of what is to come. Walking into a film knowing that the monster is revealed at the end takes away some of that edge-of-your-seat action. It blemishes the overall experience. I never forgave her and I still haven't seen the film.

Last week, the same reviewer started to talk about another film that I intend to see and after Mr. Tony asked a general question about the film, she responded, "Yes, but there is a twist. I don't want to be a spoiler, but..." (the ellipses indicate the point at which I darted across my desk and turned the radio off.) I appreciate her use of the word "spoiler" this time to give me time to shut her off. I still don't forgive her for ruining that other film for me though.

Some of my best filmgoing experiences have happened when I walked into the theatre with little information, unburdened by expectations and was dazzled by the way the film came to life. Attack the Block was the most recent dazzling experience for me. As soon as I returned home after seeing an advance screening, I sat down at my computer to write a review and tell all of my blog readers how fantastic it was. That happened in June; it has been sitting unpublished as a draft ever since. I couldn't bring myself to post it. Every paragraph is full of spoiler warnings and detailed information. It's crap. You may think that this blog is filled with blather off the top of my head, and to be fair, some of the time it is. But I do write and edit pretty carefully. I couldn't bring myself to take anything away from someone who may see the film. Even if it's at the expense of not telling people how great this film is.

After seeing Drive recently, I feel compelled once again to try my hand at movie reviews, but let's face it - there are plenty of resources for that sort of thing on the internet. Does the blogosphere really need another amateur writing film reviews? There's plenty of that out there already. So, I won't clog the blog with my own pathetic reviews, but I'm going to try to make more of an effort to share information about some of the better films I see (and possibly rant about some of the worst.) I will try my best at being responsible and attempt to enhance your filmgoing experience by providing you with links to actual reviews that are better than anything I could come up with. I have seen some good flicks this year, and I never give my endorsement lightly. I will spare you from having to read my awful attempts at reviewing a film, but I could at least do you a solid and let you know when I see something good (seriously, I have been to the movie four times in seven days. What else do I have to write about this week?)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Time for another air-travel-debacle rant!

I have notoriously bad luck with air travel. This afternoon when I was about to board a plane and heard the overhead announcement that there was no more room in the overhead bins, I knew how checking my bag at the gate would turn out. I had seen those dirty sock for the last time. I took a quick mental inventory of what was in the bag: Dirty socks and underwear, t-shirts, a couple pair of jeans and tops I had just purchased, and two new bras. Oh dammit, those were expensive bras. This is going to suck. There was nothing irreplaceable, all of the important things like credit cards and gourmet popcorn were in my handbag under the seat. Still, it sucks to have your luggage go rogue from the airline.

The line of unfortunate souls was long as the gate attendants tagged everyone's luggage and wrestled it away from them. When it was my turn, the attendant asked, "What's your final destination?" "Washington, DC" and she wrote DCA on the luggage tag and handed me the baggage claim number while the other attendant scanned my boarding pass. My suitcase and I were soon parted en route to a layover in Philadelphia.

When I boarded the plane, my feeling of impending doom was replaced by annoyance as I counted the number of empty spaces in the overhead bins. There were five alone in first class (God forbid!) and then one, two, three, four on my way to my seat and another one right above my head. They must have really wanted that bag because there was plenty of room for it but they stole it fair and square. This is clearly not a glass-half-empty airline because that overheard compartment was not even close to being full.

I arrived at Philadelphia airport prepared for my two & a half hour layover, but I noticed an earlier flight to DCA within 55 minutes. I became convinced that my luggage would end up on that flight and then sit in the baggage claim area in DC for 90 minutes before I even arrived. I tried to get myself on the earlier flight along with the bag. I walked to the opposite end of the terminal to talk to a customer service agent who told me that there was room on the flight, but it would cost me $50 to switch and I would be separated from my checked luggage. "Actually," I told him, "My luggage is the reason I want the earlier flight. I was already separated from my luggage and it will probably beat me home." He told me that was unlikely because the person who marked the luggage at the gate would have noted my flight number on the tag. I assured him that she did not even look at my boarding pass, nor did she clarify which of the three DC-area airports I was flying into. She asked where I was going, wrote DCA, and sent me on my way. He and I then had a ridiculous conversation.

Well, she would have put your flight number from your boarding pass to put on the tag when she checked your bag at the gate.

I assure you, she did not.

Well then she had the master list and got your flight number from there.

No, she had no list.

Well... regardless... if you want to book the earlier flight, you'll need to pay the difference, which is $50 and you will be separated from your luggage.

Actually, I'm more concerned about losing my luggage than getting home early, so if you can assure me that my luggage will be on the later flight...

OH, NO NO NO! We do not make that guarantee.

But you just said...

We can not make that guarantee. Too many things could happen, especially when they are checked at the gate.

Okay, then can you assure me that there will be security at the baggage claim so that if it does arrive early, it will be flagged and not put on the carousel for someone else to take it?

OH, NO NO NO! We can not guarantee against theft. I don't know what the security is like at that particular airport, and it can happen that someone picks up the wrong bag.

So really, their slogan should be, "Give us your bag and hope for the best!" Brilliant.

I kept my original flight (and my $50) and no surprise, when I arrived my bag was not on the carousel. I went to the baggage claim office and she scanned my ticket claim, couldn't find anything, asked me where I came from and told me that more bags were coming in from my flight and she sent me back out to the carousel from whence I came. After watching other peoples' luggage take a few laps, I walked back into the office and another attendant was at the counter so I had to repeat my ordeal. She tried to send me back out to the carousel again but I assured her that my bag was not there. She had a dozen unclaimed bags - mine was not among them. She then asked for my address and phone number and handed me a receipt and said, "Your bag will be delivered to you." What? When? "Tomorrow." Okay, so where is it? "It has not been scanned yet so there is no tracking information." So basically, they told me they had no idea where it is. They put these bar codes on the bags, but then don't scan them unless they end up somewhere unclaimed. Not only is it a bad system, but everyone I talked to acted like I was a huge inconvenience to them. My inquiries about luggage that they forced me to hand over to them and they proceeded to lose - was a huge inconvenience to them. No one apologized, no one did anything to try to explain, they all told me to wait longer and sent me on my way. So, I looked at the receipt she handed me:

Dear Customer,
We sincerely apologize for the delay of your baggage. (Finally! An apology!)

...Most delayed bags are recovered in less than 24 hours, so please remain confident that you will be reunited with your property very soon. Please know that our Baggage Service Specialists are doing everything possible to reduce the amount of time you are inconvenienced. (No, they're really not.)

...If the delay exceeds 24 hours, the tracing of your property will be overseen by a dedicated team of specialists from our Central Baggage Resolution Office. You can expect periodic updates from a Specialist during the tracing process.

I was sent on my way to wait at home for my luggage. I was not happy, but I did stop by the arrivals screen before I left and saw that the next flight from Philly was due in 30 minutes. So, I headed to the airport T.G.I. Fridays and amused myself until the next flight came in and then headed back down to the baggage carousel. Sure enough, there was my little red bag. Reunited and it feels so good! It did not arrive before me as I expected, it arrived after me. I checked the tag since the customer service representative was so insistent that a flight number had to have been written on there. It had a flight number, but it wasn't mine. I googled the flight. It was from DTW to CLT: Detroit to Charlotte, two cities I did not travel through or even near.

I'm really annoyed by the whole ordeal. I understand that these things happen because in all honesty, they usually happen to me. But never with this much disregard and condescension. From the "full overhead compartments" that were not full, to the baggage claim representatives who didn't give a flying frank what happened to my bags, I was really disgusted with the whole experience. Under normal circumstances, I would have turned around after claiming my bag from the carousel and letting the attendants know to cancel the delayed baggage claim, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. The whole thing was so screwed up, that I'm actually curious if I will ever hear from anyone at the airline again in regard to my missing bag. Apparently the bar code was never scanned, so they have no record of it at all. They don't know if I claimed it, or if someone else took off with it. I'm very curious to find out if they will follow up at all. I am guessing that they're not going to get in touch with me about my luggage, they will wait for me to contact them. Well, I'm done contacting them and going through their runaround. I am confounded by the lack of concern and am curious if I hadn't claimed the bag, if my dirty socks and underwear would have taken another vacation through Michigan and North Carolina.

I wish I was one of those people who could stand at the counter and make a scene until someone takes action or gives them a free flight or hands over the contents of the cash register just to get them to stop complaining and go away. I don't have it in me to do that. When I listen to someone who does not give a crap about the problems that their company has created for me, it's not in my nature to scream at them until they pretend to care. But it's unfortunate that without raising your voice, you're treated like a doormat after spending a lot of money to travel. The people in the baggage claim in front of me were getting the runaround and told to go to the Air Canada terminal. When they asked where that was, the person behind the desk didn't know and told them to go look on the map. Is it too much to expect that they might have a map of their own behind the desk for situations like this? Or perhaps some sort of world wide web of information that they could use to ask Google? Perhaps I ask too much. I should just be happy that for the low price of $200 for a one-way ticket, I was able to fly halfway across the country and keep my belongings as well.