Made summer travel plans yet? Bad news: Nine people are looking at that flight you want. Right now. They're probably talking about you, too.
In the golden age of air travel, when everyone arrived reeking of cigarettes and deafened by jet noise that sounded like a dragon had been yelling the same note in your ear for six hours, you got your ticket from a travel agency. You called them up, told them where you wanted to go and they mailed you a ticket. It sounds grand, but it was very expensive, so flights usually had just 10 people who passed the time drinking Champagne and sucking oysters off their monocles.
So we're told, anyway. Flights are cheap now, and you'd be a fool not to book online. You're in charge. No longer need you seek the intercession of the priestly class of travel pros. You can go to the big travel sites, which give you points that you can use to get other points.
I believe I have 16 billion points on one of these sites, which I got by booking a hotel room in Chicago four years ago. As a valued member of Extravelocityak, the next time I book a room I can use those points to reduce the rate from $127.39 to $126.98. But, I'm told, "restrictions apply."
Do I have to be bound and gagged? No, it just means that the property is not available during times of peak usage, which is defined as "any time during which, but not limited to, a period in the day, or the evening, or the tenebrous period betwixt the two, when people (thereafter, cattle) may wish to enter, and upon entering the premises, proceed to a room for the purposes of slumber, washing and/or sundry activities defined by the European Declaration of Hotel Motions, ratified 2002."
So ... I can't go to the hotel? Of course I can. But there is an $87 fee.
Here's where I pull out my secret weapon: "Ah, but I am a member of the hotel's rewards program. All I need are 3,000 more points to reach Tin Status, which would be possible if I get a job as a salesman that requires me to be on the road 51 weeks a year."
At this point, I consider giving up and thinking, "I'll do it tomorrow." No! The website will remember me and jack up the price by $9 unless I clear my cache and use a different name and log in from another city.
To compound the anxiety, the website says, "Nine people are looking at this place right now." It's like they're already there, wandering through the room with the manager, fingering the towels, admiring the view. You show up, and everyone turns and looks toward the door — "Oh, we're so sorry, but you're too late."
So you book that sucker, and imagine them all sucked out the window as if yanked by invisible strings.
Now for the plane. Seems cheap — but yikes, this tier has no seat selection, no checked bags, and I am required to spend the flight in the lavatory. I can upgrade for $56 and choose my own seat. For this I should be immensely grateful, because when I enter the plane, the flight attendants will size me up right away: "There's a man who chose his own seat."
Then I remember that I have credit card points. You know the deal — for every dollar you spend, you get an amount equal to the cash value of a grocery store coupon, something like 1/60th of a cent. I'd never used them for travel, assuming they had blackout dates and restrictions — you can't fly on days with vowels, or your trip to Boston is routed through Bulgaria with a four-minute layover. But to my surprise, the flight I wanted was available.
But I had to move fast because 403 people were looking at this very flight, and they already were irritable because I'd taken their hotel room. I hit confirm, got the animation that said the page was finishing up my request ...
Waited ... Waited ... WAITED
"Error: submask routine 394B. Broken gateway. Request timed out. Please contact 1-800-HAH-AHAH."
The kicker: The page showed my points balance was now $0.00. I called the help number, and after navigating through a dozen automated menus ("If you'd like to scream wordlessly into an uncaring void, please press 0") I was greeted with: "Hello, Mr. Lilks, you have a balance of $0.00. How may I assist you today?"
"Well, pal, after battling whatever demons live in the pits of the hell that is your rewards system, I'd best see you clutching my ticket or a bucket of points."
That's what I wanted to say. But it wasn't his fault. Eventually, he got my ticket, and all was well. Oh, the hotel was a bit more expensive because I didn't do a package on Kayexpedolicity, so I'll have to eat that extra $3.
But I can live with that because summer vacation is now officially on. I got a confirmation on my phone, so it must be so. Unless the message disappears. Perhaps I'll print the confirmation, put it in an envelope and mail it to myself.