The (travel) times they are a-changin’

April 27, 2021

The post-pandemic travel recovery period has begun.  In fits and starts, anyway.  Or so it seems to me based on my observations and recent personal experiences scheduling travel.  With apologies to Bob Dylan, the times they are changin’ and my careful travel plans along with them.

Delta reshuffles its schedule, and then reshuffles it again, with multiple negative effects

Like many travelers, I accumulated a number of e-credits when Covid-19 hit and eviscerated my trips already in place for 2020.  For my canceled Delta itineraries, the airline originally promised—back when no one could see the end of the big sick—that the e-credits would be good through the end of 2022, which was a relief to me. 

But when I began to rebook travel this year using those credits to offset the 2021 fares, I discovered that new tickets to which the e-credits were applied had to be used by 12 months from the issue date.  The original “good through 12-31-22” period was gone if I had to change the new ticket for some reason. 

And that’s a problem because I did have to change three of the tickets—one twice—because Delta keeps redoing its schedules trying to predict market demand.  I had flights bought and paid for partially with e-credits to Minneapolis in May, to Billings in June, and to Fargo in August that had to be totally recreated with different itineraries on account of Delta’s moving schedules.

Frustratingly, I found that it was not possible to make the changes myself online for the impacted trips.  Delta forces travelers to call, and wait times are routinely 4+ hours (so proclaims the recorded announcement).  My status as a Platinum Elite member kicks my calls to a Delta system that gives me the option to have a rez agent call me back within one to four hours.  Rather than wait on hold for four hours, of course I accept that choice, but sometimes the Delta system malfunctions, forcing me to call again.  At which time it recognizes that it hasn’t called me and responds with a message that I’ll be called soon and hangs up.

Maddening.  But eventually—so far—the Delta system has returned my calls, which then involved a long session with a reservation agent to fix my travel plans to approximately what I wanted. 

Adding to the complexity, in two cases I used Delta’s Regional Upgrade Certificates, a Delta Platinum benefit that I’d selected for 2021. They are only good for first class upgrades when the Delta system says so, which is usually when there are lots of unsold first class seats.  Those certificates are devilishly hard to redeem, which made it difficult for the rez agents working on two of my changed trips to find replacement flights that qualified.  No good using such a certificate for, say, RDU to Atlanta—a one hour flight—when the Atlanta to Salt Lake City leg is in coach with only center seats remaining.  That’s a big waste of the certificate, and who wants to sit in row 33 in a center seat on a four hour flight?

Thus, another complication when Delta keeps changing its schedule—and I doubt the changes are over yet for the summer and the fall.  Yet the clock keeps ticking on my “one year from date of issue” deadline for using the ticket value in which is subsumed the original “good through the end of 2022” e-credits.  Delta’s shell game may get my money after all.

This is no fun, a complete waste of my time when schedules are repeatedly altered for the airline’s convenience.  A prime example that the times they are a-changin’.

Rental car lunacy

The pandemic hit rental car companies hard, just it did other travel industry sectors, resulting in fleet decimation and a failure to replenish cars.  Now, finding a rental car is a struggle, and prices are in the stratosphere if cars are available at all.  I’m paying over $100 a day for a vehicle at MSP to drive to our son’s college commencement in May and more than that in Fargo for a weekend family wedding in August.

I almost didn’t find a car available at all in Billings in late June and early July; even the few economy cars shown were over $200 per day.  And I need a vehicle for two weeks.  Jeez, for $2800 I could nearly buy a clunker. 

Searching the Costco Travel portal—often the cheapest prices for rental cars, I’ve found—yielded no better prices at BIL for the period, nor did the Capital One travel portal or the Amex travel portal.  Certainly nothing when making direct inquiries with Hertz, Avis, Budget, and Alamo, despite trying multiple discount codes. Even with a hefty credit from my Amex Platinum Card account applied, I was looking at $1098 for 14 days, but since that was the cheapest I found, I groaned and booked it. I thought to myself that I’ll never grumble again about high rental car prices after the summer of 2021.

But then Delta changed my flights into Billings (see above) and gave me no option except to go two days earlier than planned.  When I subsequently tried to change my Amex-reserved rental car to pick up 48 hours earlier, it said no cars were available at any price.  Gee, thanks, Delta.

Complaining to someone who grew up in Billings about this situation led to the news that a used car dealer in Billings sometimes rents cars.  I called the company and felt fortunate to reserve a car for $44/day all-in for the two weeks.  Still not ideal, as I arrive on a Sunday when the dealership is closed, so I have to overnight in Billings and pick it up Monday morning.  Also, the car I get is unstipulated.  I just asked it not be a compact or economy.  But, hey, I got a car at a reasonable rate, so I’m happy. Never had to do that before.  Yep, the times they are a-changin’.

Getting to Newark from RDU isn’t cheap

UA’s fares from RDU to EWR are not competitive with other carriers serving the route, an incidental finding when booking several upcoming trips to Johannesburg on United’s new nonstop from Newark.  Incidental because I originally booked on United from RDU through to JNB in premium economy on a great intro fare.  Then I learned that UA was offering a deal in business class in their newest Polaris cabin configuration on the 787 to be used EWR/JNB. The biz fare is good only from Newark, however, not from Raleigh.  I bit on the deal and thus needed to connect RDU/EWR using separate tickets. 

That’s when I realized that United charges a lot more than Delta or American to fly me to Newark.  First class, for example, for the date and arrival time I needed to connect to the Johannesburg flight, is around $650 on UA and about $200 less on DL and AA.  Main cabin economy fares are similarly disparate.  $650 is a lot of money for just a one hour flight.

I booked Delta, leaving myself plenty of time to walk between EWR terminals.  I even found a relatively cheap mileage award in first and used some of my many Delta frequent flyer miles to pay for the ticket. 

Some weeks later, naturally, Delta notified me of another schedule change (see first above) which would have made me miss my UA flight to Jo’burg. With no reasonable alternative schedules to reach Newark that didn’t require waiting 8-10 hours for my connection, I redeposited the mileage into my SkyMiles account and again checked United and American schedules and fares. 

Having learned my lesson that airline schedules are particularly mercurial this year, I booked UA because I could link the domestic ticket to the international one with United in both directions.  However, I paid a premium for the United ticket.  In normal times—where by “normal” I mean pre-2020—I would have taken my chances with Delta or American on cheaper flights.  But the times they are a-changin’.

American Express Platinum DEPARTURES magazine is departing

At least that’s my surmise after receiving this gayly-printed double-sided poster with the latest DEPARTURES magazine. Note it says “We’re moving beyond the printed page so we can share more unexpected and candid perspectives with you more often” which is marketing drivel for “We saw a way to save money after we couldn’t sell enough ad space to keep printing and mailing this expensive beast of a magazine.”

Personally, I never liked the rag and used it as a door stopper, so I won’t miss it.  However, I disdain the hypocrisy of American Express language and resent the company insulting my intelligence.  Why can’t they just admit that no one reads it and that the advertising base won’t cover printing costs any longer?  I suspect the demise of the printed version is another casualty of the times as hard copy publications go the way of the dodo, a decision accelerated by the pandemic.   

The poster’s front side shows nearly forty years of DEPARTURES typefaces, once again hammering home that the times they are a-changin’.

2 thoughts on “The (travel) times they are a-changin’

  1. Dear Will, I have had in mind your “adventures” in trying to visit South Africa and do hope that those plans do work out for you, eventually. The car rental scene is truly perplexing. We hope to attend a wedding on Long Island around July 4, and could fly into either LGA or JFK. When I explored my usual Enterprise web pages, I got complete blanks; no high prices, simply no cars. Since this message has been coming through since March, I get the impression that they’ve withdrawn from the market for the time being, but trying to get a definitive answer has been impossible. And all I can say on schedule changes is amen. One would think that North Dakota would be less challenging than South Africa.

  2. Another thought for Raleigh to Newark: Amtrak’s train 80, the Carolinian. Even if you have to leave the day before, and even if you have to get a hotel in the Newark Airport area, it is still FAR FAR cheaper than flying.

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