Sunday, June 29, 2008

Instant Internet

I go places on short notice. When I'm at home, I get an e-mail or a phone call saying, "Go to such and such a place," and I put my computer in my already packed bag and I go. It takes me maybe 20 minutes to get to the airport. Minimum check in time for an international flight is 60 minutes, so if there's a flight leaving two hours from now it's reasonable to want to book it. And I may be sitting in an FBO, five minutes walk from the terminal when I get the instruction to leave the airplane here and fly to some other place. So I may want to book a flight that leaves within the hour. But it's tricky.

When you try to book a flight on Expedia within two hours of departure, as soon as you click on "book this flight" it puts up a splashpage saying that due to the amount of time you have spent making the selection, it is necessary to reselect the flight to confirm availability. It then cycles back to the search results page. This is an infinite loop, no matter how fast you select the flight.

So you go to an airline site, having figured out from Expedia who flies to where you're going, and written down the flight numbers. It always amuses me the date that some airlines assume you are travelling. Air Canada makes no assumptions, just gives you a calendar to click. United, I believe, assumes you're booking two weeks in advance. But convince it you want to fly today, now, and it may not even display the flight that you know is going out in two hours. So you have to just jump in the cab and go to the passenger terminal and ask them to sell you the ticket. And I suppose this is reasonable to them, to prevent problems with people booking flights they can't get to. But when you consider how much they will eventually charge me to get that last minute flight, you'd think they'd make it a little easier to do.

Once I have checked in and found my gate, I then pull out my cellphone and cancel all the appointments I have for the next week or so. "Hi, it's Aviatrix. Sorry I'm not going to be able to make lunch tomorrow. I have to go to Florida." This sort of thing never elicits much sympathy, so sometimes I just say, "I've been called in to work." I love my job because it teaches me to live each day to the fullest. For tomorrow I may be in Texas.

Today I discovered a new way that my last-minute lifestyle messes up systems designed for normal people: online hotel bookings. I thought that would be easy, but sitting on a bench next to an airport baggage carousel, waiting for my luggage to tumble down the chute, I went online to Holiday Inn (I'm going to earn free baseball tickets for staying there eight nights this month, and I couldn't care less about baseball, so some lucky Cockpit Conversation reader is going to win the tickets in a contest to be thought of later, but I digress). I suppose I should have booked the hotel from the departure lounge back in Canada, as soon as I knew where I was going, but I wasn't sure if I would be continuing on with the airplane the same night, and besides that terminal didn't have free wireless. So it was at destination that I went online to the Holiday Inn site, found the nearest hotel to the airport and attempted to book a room for the night. "Your check-in date has passed," it tells me. "Please select new dates." It wasn't even midnight yet. I called the hotel directly and yes they had a room, and yes I could check in. How weird is that? I wonder what the cut off time is for the online check-in.

I tried another hotel chain and got the same kind of error message. I wish they would at least have reasonable messages. "We're sorry, it's too late in the evening to make this booking online [because we have moronic software], please call the hotel directly," might work well. And it should be documented, so I know the limits of the system.

I'm also smart enough not to admit to people at customs that I have no clue where I'm going. "I'm just going to go find this airplane, you see, and then go where my customer tells me." Not so smart. I confidently tell them the name of a city and of a large chain hotel, and everyone is happy. As long as I do eventually get a hotel.


rdelight said...

I hate last minute stuff while traveling. The only thing worse is when you have to make a snap decison, but someone else feels it's time for some consensus building while the opportunity slips away.

nec Timide said...

...[because we have moronic software]...

Wouldn't that be great! Alas it would require a degree of honesty and a sense of humor that aren't often cultivated in large IT departments.

Stelven said...

Such an "Instant On" lifestyle must not leave room for much of a social-life. :(


dpierce said...

I've had to integrate software with a couple of hotel reservation systems. Quite a few major chains are setup with the online processing handled at corporate HQ, while the individual hotels have their OWN systems and databases. The hotel systems exchange information with the corporate system only a few times a day. So if it's too close to the time you would be expected to check in, the online system will (wisely) deny you, because the hotel may not get the update in time, or because the hotel might have already independently sold the room.

It's all a bit primative for this day and age. However, franchise owners don't want to get rid of their local system and work directly off corporate because if the network lines go down, they won't be able to run their hotel. Certainly the existing systems could be updated to communicate with each other "live", but nobody wants to pay for that major overhaul for a relatively minor benefit. The newest systems don't have this limitation, of course.

Just remember, with most hotels, what you see online doesn't amount to a hill of beans. Your reservation needs to be in the hotel's OWN computer for your check-in to go smoothly. After I make a hotel reservation online, I call the hotel directly the next day and confirm they have my booking. Often they don't! (Of course, I rarely travel same-day.)

While you have them on the phone, ask if you have the lowest rate. VERY often they'll cut your rate on the spot. The online systems often aren't aware of each hotel's local rate policies or don't have the knowledge or authority to offer a rate as low as the hotel can offer itself.

majroj said...

Yeah, call the hotel. While you have the person on the phone, toss down the "Oh, yeah, I just remembered! Do you have discounts for professional aviators", or "AAA members", "seniors", "retired military" etc etc. Pick some personally credible ones. Law enforcement and military seem to work well, and even though I DO qualify, they hardly ever actually check my credentials! Might cough up a reservation for you if another one is "iffy" and they need to get that room "for-sured".

viennatech said...

Seconding what MajRoj says. it's very true that it's not who you are but who you know. Throw in a few letters and you'll almost always save a good chunk of change. I think that the internet is awesome but for this type of real time communication, the phone is king. Keep a list of the 1-800's for each hotel chain's booking department and you don't even need to look for free wifi. ;)
This works especially well after DHS steals your laptop