Lileks: The tragedy of booking your own travel
The other day I was weeping out loud — sorry, let me start again. The other day I was trying to make plane reservations, and discovered that I had two options.
1. Unreliable airline that flies in the opposite direction from your destination, lands in Denver Terminal A and has a 17-minute window to make your connecting flight in Terminal Q.
2. Dependable carrier with a layover in Newark that's long enough to require you to file a New Jersey income tax return.
Doesn't matter if you use explocity.com or Travelpedia or Canoe or CheepFlites4U, it's the same. You always start by checking to see if there are any nonstop flights — which technically doesn't make any sense because I expect them to stop eventually.
This is why you don't fly with Genie airlines, which grants your wish but does so with malice. "Why aren't we landing? We've been circling for seven hours!" You asked for a nonstop, didn't you? Foolish mortal!
"What should I have asked for, Genie? You would have twisted it anyway. If I'd said I want to land in Minneapolis, you'd have crashed the plane. If I'd said I want to land 'safely,' you would've turned the plane into a bank vault and dropped it from 30,000 feet. If I'd said I wanted an aisle seat, you would have put me in the literal aisle. I'm never flying this airline again."
(Six months later, looking on Travexpediak, you think: Wow, that's a low fare, I'm going with Genie.)
In the olden times you didn't have to get your own flights. You would go to an office lined with attractive posters of distant destinations, tell them where you wanted to go, and they'd get right on it. A few days later, the ticket would arrive in the mail.
"Hold on," the youthful reader might say. "In the mail? Was it a secure mailbox? Did it have two-factor ID, like, when you tried to open the mailbox, the phone on the wall rang and you had to repeat a code?" No. Just a plain, ordinary mailbox.
So, you might be wondering, how much did this cost?
Nothing! They made their money from the airlines, which gave them a little taste of the price as a way of saying thank you.
If you wanted to drive — before computers and smartphones, people left their house a lot — you could order a Triptik from AAA. Members would announce where they wanted to go, and AAA would make a book of maps with the route highlighted in orange marker.
It listed points of interest, in case you wanted to pull over and see a historical sign (on this spot, the town of Gargle, Tenn., was consumed by a sinkhole) or a little museum devoted to the manufacture of the carpet tack. Restaurants, gas stations, motels — all there. It would take you by your trembling hand and guide you through the crazy spaghetti-bowl interchanges in a dense city highway to your hotel.
Ah, a simpler time! And thus, better, right? No, of course not. It's much better to have a robot voice telling you to turn right at the next stop sign. But getting that bulky pack was comforting — it was tangible, durable and did not require a connection to the mysterious cloud gods who beam down instructions. Same with an airline ticket. The travel agency sent you a ticket, and once you had that, you felt assured of your flight.
To this day, after all these years of internet travel arranging, I get a slight rill of anxiety when I check in to the flight and enter the reservation number. Oops! Sorry, we can't find that flight. Ah, must have mistyped it. Oops! Sorry, we can't find that flight. You end up calling the airline, and you expect to hear this when you connect:
"Thank you for calling Deltier SunBlue. Please select your option:
"Basic assistance: no hold music, placed in the queue at random behind 50 other people. No charge.
"Assistance Bronze: no hold music, but you can buy a spot in the queue between callers 30 and 50. Upgrade fee: $11.
"Assistance Silver: complimentary hold music, queue selection between callers 20 and 30. Upgrade fee: $21.
"Assistance Gold: All of the above, expedited answering within five minutes by someone who enjoys their job and life in general. Upgrade fee: $31."
You're pressed for time, but you're not made of money, so you go with Bronze. Eventually someone answers and explains that you can't check in because the airline is a partner airline, and you have to check in on their site. This means setting up an account on that airline, and now you're enrolled in their rewards program. Great, I'm now at Level Tin, only 6,000 more miles to get Level Dross or Level Hay or whatever's next.
Anyway. I made my reservation online, as usual, saved the confirmation page as a pdf. Still didn't feel real. So I printed it off and mailed it to myself.