Culture

Technology is your travel friend... until it's not

Commentary: When tech fails you during a travel emergency, you need to be patient, resourceful and have your credit card ready.

James Martin

Technology has changed the way we book travel. The downtown airline ticket offices that I used to gaze so longingly into as a kid are largely gone, replaced by efficient but boring websites. Now we can research fares, book our seats and even select our meals without ever talking to a live person. Convenience wins.

This online world usually works well -- letting us quickly and privately plan the vacation we want from almost anywhere. But when it doesn't, you might as well be flapping your arms.

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It's a sad sight when your plane takes off without you, even sadder is trying to rebook.

Kent German/CNET

When it rains, it pours

That realization hit hard last week when I tried to head home to London from CES in Las Vegas. I had a five-hour layover in San Francisco International on January 8. Five hours is normally a big enough buffer to absorb any problems in delay-prone SFO, but that Sunday was anything but normal.

A powerful rainstorm had punched through the Bay Area that weekend -- toppling trees, causing huge floods, and delaying and canceling more than 1,000 flights. My flight from Vegas was one of them. As I watched the McCarran Airport departure screen flip to 6:30 p.m., I knew I was going to miss my connection to Heathrow two hours later.

Since I'd purchased the tickets separately, I'd either have to swallow the hefty rebooking fees or be a no-show and buy a new one-way ticket. I chose the first option. So while still in Vegas, I logged in to the British Airways site (thank God for free airport Wi-Fi) to make the change. Easy, right?

Nope.

BA wouldn't allow me to make any changes online because I'd already checked in. Instead, I had to go old-school and ring the airline's customer service desk. That sounded reasonable. I'd done it many times in the 1990s, after all, but a phone call requires a phone. I had two: One with my longtime US number that I had switched to a T-Mobile prepaid account when I moved to London. The other is the mobile I use everyday in the UK. This is where things get "interesting."

My kingdom for a pay phone

Since I'd used all my T-Mobile minutes, my first instinct was to call customer service from my regular phone -- my British carrier, Three, gives me free calls home I'm while in the US. But BA's UK service desk is only open during the day, and it was 1:00 a.m. in Britain. BA's US customer service line was open, but you can't call a toll-free 800 number from a non-US phone. Rock. Hard place.

So, I switched to Plan B, which was more like Plan D by this point. After adding 60 minutes to my T-Mobile account and spending a half of them on hold, I finally got through to a real human being and, together, we started the rebooking process. But then, just as we were almost finished, my US phone, an admittedly ancient Nokia Lumia 720, decided to die. Maybe it was old age (it wasn't a dead battery), but the screen went gray and poof, my helpful BA agent was gone.

Five minutes after that, I was boarding my flight to San Francisco (finally!) and plotting my route home. Then -- miracle of miracles!-- that friendly UK agent rang my UK phone. Using the phone number on my customer record, she called me back to secure payment for the fare difference, a still eye-watering amount even after she waived the £300 (about $370 or AU$490) rebooking fee. Just in time for the plane to push back and passengers to shoot me disapproving looks, we were done. Or so I thought.

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My dead Nokia Lumia 720. Yes, it was old, but why upgrade a phone that I use only three weeks each year?

Kent German/CNET

From bad... to worse

I landed in San Francisco two hours later and booked a room at local hotel. Yes, I know you're not supposed to use your credit card over public Wi-Fi, but I didn't have much choice. I did have a ticket home and a bed for the night, so it seemed like my awful day was finally behind me.

That is, until I received a troubling email from BA while collecting my bag. I still wasn't confirmed to fly the next day, it said, until I called them back with the credit card number my husband had originally used to book the ticket. The trouble? That card was with him back in London.

It was a crap sandwich if there ever was one, but I was exhausted and done with the whole thing. So, while eating a midnight dinner in a way-too-bright German beer hall turned Thai restaurant, I texted him my request for a very big favor: Call BA and sort out this mess while I get some sleep.

And thanks to his heroic efforts, I woke up to a seat on that evening's flight to London. California had some much-needed rain, I'd made the best of my extra day in San Francisco and I made it home in time for my birthday.

I also learned some important (and expensive) lessons:

  • Without the tech to support you, visiting your home country as an expat can be just as disorienting as traveling abroad.
  • Always have a working phone when traveling; a pay phone (if you can find one) won't cut it.
  • When making contingency travel plans, strategize about all potential options for doing so ahead of time. For example, write down your airline's customer service phone number.
  • Don't take free Wi-Fi, toll-free phone numbers and online booking for granted.
  • Expats: Don't give up your old number, it could be worth its weight in gold. But make sure it works!
  • Yes, you should put up with Three's dismal coverage in London if you want the free calls and data in the US.
  • Maybe travel insurance is worth it.
  • Next year, fly back to London directly from Vegas.

As a kid when I had a problem, mom always told me to use my words. My adventure reminded me what good advice that is. Because when tech fails you, your words may be all you have.

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