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Aristotle (5147)


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Journal of Aristotle (5147)

Tuesday August 18, 2009
12:57 PM

Sudden involuntary cosmopolitan

[ #39484 ]

[I wrote the following over the course of 2 days, about two weeks ago.]

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Two days ago [on Aug 6], I checked out from the hotel where I’d been staying for YAPC. Unfortunately, I tried to to pay with my credit card.

Well, it has all the trappings of a regular credit card (or almost…), but it’s actually a debit card. I have no interest in taking out loans, but I wanted to be able to order things online from outside the German web, and Germany-typical payment modalidities are unknown elsewhere (whereas credit cards are somewhat unusual in Germany, in turn). So when my bank sent me an offer for one of those cards, I thought it was just perfect. I have since used this card some two dozen times, and with a single exception it always worked, both online and off. As a matter of fact, I used it on the day of my Lisbon-bound air journey.

That’s how I came to have a have a credit card that’s not a credit card.

Now, since I was travelling to a foreign country, I figured that having the hotel money on a credit card would be the safest bet for paying. Unfortunately it appears that unbeknownst to me, sometimes you need a PIN to pay with this sort of card. I’d received the PIN in the mail when I got the card, but I’d never needed it, so I hadn’t bothered to memorise the PIN.

And of course, it came up at the hotel. We tried a bunch of things, including me phoning home and asking the folks if they could scare up the slip with the PIN. They found one, except that number didn’t work.

Ironically, the MasterCard for my regular German debit account would have worked just fine (of course I do know the PIN for that) – so if I’d simply done nothing, I wouldn’t have had any trouble. But of course I didn’t have enough money in that account: it was all on the credit card account.

Heck, if I’d carried it all as cash that would have worked brilliantly.

Now, I went to check out at 15:00 – 50 minutes before the check-in counter at the airport would close, in turn the usual 30 minutes before the flight, which was at 16:20. The airport is barely over 5 taxi minutes away from the hotel, so 50 minutes seemed to be plenty early. In the end, when I started to get antsy and mentioned my flight, the hotel manager let me go without paying then and there.

But you know what’s coming, or else the story wouldn’t be so freakishly long: the credit card hold-up took long enough that I missed the check-in by 3 minutes. I should have called the airline to tell them I’d be in late – they could have held the check-in open a bit longer if I’d done that, and none of this would have happened. But that didn’t cross my mind; besides, I’ve been late a minute or two late for check-in at my home airport, and they always managed to get me on the flight anyway, so I thought that as long as I was close enough, I’d make it.

So I arrive at the airport and the clerks at the check-in counter tell me I’m late, and that there is absolutely no way that they can re-open check-in for me. I need to run over to the Air Berlin ticket office. Now I’m seriously worried. The flight is taking off in 26 minutes. Maybe I can make some kind of luggage arrangement so I can get on the plane and have the luggage trail me later; or something. I run over to the office… to be greeted by a sign that says “be back soon”.

Two minutes pass. Three minutes. Five. Eight. Twelve. Twenty now, the flight is going in 10 minutes – and no one’s at the office! Finally, some 30 minutes later, a lady shows up. I tell her what’s going on and she tells me there’s nothing to be done. My only option is to re-book the flight for next day. It’ll be a bunch extra, of course. Just great. Still, what can I do? So I tell her to book it; she asks for my transaction number and sets to work.

Then I think to myself, wait a minute, I shouldn’t be so impulsive. Let’s see if another airline has a flight out sooner and/or cheaper. So I tell her to abort the procedure. She asks, is that really what I want? Am I sure? Well, so I say, yes I am sure. OK, she says, and she does it. Now this transaction number is void, she announces; if I decide to take tomorrow’s flight, I’ll have to book a completely new ticket. How much? Nearly twice as much. This is the point in our program where I barely hold myself back from cursing – couldn’t she have told me that 30 seconds earlier?!?!?

Because now I have a serious problem: the credit card does not have that much money on it. I do have the money, but it’s in a regular German debit account – and since it takes 2–4 days for withdrawals from such accounts to go through, that money is non-existent for the purposes of booking a flight on the spot.

What to do?!

I do what I was going to: look around for the prices at other airlines.

Among the many other things Lisbon airport appears to lack is a central ticket office.

That means I hit up half a dozen airline ticket offices, one by one, asking for flights to my airport. It’s 16:30 so I’m under time pressure: the offices all close soon, including the Air Berlin one, which closes at 17:30. I get the same picture everywhere: significantly more expensive than the ticket offering I already have, or no flights to my airport, or all seats booked solid for a week, or whatever.

And now?!

Ah! I paid a small cash advance at the hotel. If they’ll let me have it back, that money plus the credit card would cover the flight – with a 20€ allowance left over. I won’t have enough cash on me to pay the long-term parking lot ticket at the airport at home (which comes to 40€), but heck, even if I can’t get at my car right away, at least I’ll be back in my town. So I call and ask. The poor manager sighs and says OK.

The taxi to the hotel and back eats 7€ out of my allowance. Ugh. If I run out of money, I’ll be screwed… so far it looks like it’ll suffice, and I can only hope.

Triumphantly I return to the Air Berlin office 5 minutes before it closes. I smile at the lady and tell her the good news. She smiles back and says she can only take either all cash, or charge it all against a credit card, but not both. That’s even though the Air Berlin office at my home airport could and did book a flight in that exact way just days before.

Of course, without the PIN, the airport ATM won’t let me convert the credit card allowance into cash either.

At this point, I’m feeling pretty defeated.

At least I am left with some 90€ in cash, so I’m not completely stranded in this airport. Unlike the story of another time where I came very close – an altogether separate level of unpleasantness –, I have enough fuel to communicate and get around town a bit, which gives me the leeway I need to hatch a plan. And I should probably have enough left at the end that paying the parking lot fee back home shouldn’t be a problem either.

So I relax a lot. Of course I’m still worried, since I don’t have an actual solution for how I’ll book my flight, just the means to implement one. I assume I’ll hit the social meeting, where I will hopefully find people who will be able to help me in whatever way they will. I was previously disappointed that I was going to have to miss the meet since it was announced so late and my return flight was long booked at that point. “I guess that solves that”, I think to myself.

I don’t know where the meeting will be, though. So the plan will have to involve going online somehow, to check the conference wiki. Since there is no free wireless at the airport, this implies going back to the venue where I’ll be able to use the conference WLAN, which is still operative because there are tutorial sessions still running over the next few days. So the venue is my next destination.

With the drop of my stress levels, exhaustion kicks in, so I look for seats in a quiet spot in the airport. I want to sit for a while to unwind a little and collect myself before launching into the next attack.

Lisbon airport does not seem to have any quiet spots.

I wander aimlessly… and run into Roz, who is at the airport way early for her flight. The hotel wouldn’t have her any more. So I sit down and tell her the story so far. We chat for a while, then her check-in counter opens. I tag along as she goes to checks in her luggage.

Near the counter, we run into evdb, whom I didn’t know personally, and probably would have missed if I wasn’t in Roz’s company. We tell him the story again, and to my astonishment he immediately asks in what way he can help – lend me cash, book my flight, whatever. I’m speechless at first, and of course immensely relieved and grateful. Maybe things will be OK after all.

The first thing we try is that evdb asks the counter, then some ticket offices, for flights; he has a few tacks I wasn’t aware of. Unfortunately, covering more airlines does not change the results: no tickets, booked solid, etc.

Next angle of attack: having him book my flight online. However, try as we might we cannot go online at the airport: more than half a dozen wireless ISPs offer connectivity, but none of their payment procedures work.

At that point, the two of them are running out of time. As a last resort gesture, evdb withdraws a fistful of cash and hands it to me – we’ll be in touch by email for paying it back –, before they leave to board their flight. I thank him and we say goodbyes.

Now I am really good cash-wise. I expect to need very little of his money, but I’ll be able to absorb surprise expenses without breaking a sweat. So I calm down a little more at the same time as my worry also increases back due to the fact that my situation is not yet sorted out after all.

After a short rest, I re-embark on my initial plan to find the meet. The part that follows here is largely boring – in the really good sense of the word. I take a taxi to the conference venue, connect to the wireless there, check the wiki, take notes, hit the metro, make the trip to the destination as planned, and find the pub where the meeting is taking place, all without a hitch. This stretch of the story passes completely uneventfully – what a welcome change that is.

So I arrive at the meet-up, and of course conversation turns to my story immediately, despite my not wanting to turn it that way myself, at least not right away – I want to ask for help, not beg for it or demand it. As soon as I’ve explained the situation, Nobull offers to help me out with cash or a flight booking.

Now the problem is, how do we book the flight? There is no free wireless around, only several closed networks. José mentions that one of the nearby cafés has an open access point, so we wander over to mooch some access. Since the signal is weak, we wander a little closer, but soon, the network disappears entirely. Our guess is the bartender or someone else in the shop saw us milling about with a laptop and turned off the access point. Bummer. So we walk back to the Irish Pub, where there is a strong PT-WIFI signal, and eventually we find one of the Portuguese mongers has an account with them, though no laptop. Another local monger produces his laptop, and a connection is eventually established, so I can finally get online to book the flight, leaving the payment details for Nobull to enter – who uses his wife’s credit card.

That “booking confirmed” screen is a truly international effort.

And with all that, my journey back is finally secured and I relax.

After socialising for a few hours, I take a taxi to the airport to sit out the rest night and the following noon. It’s nearly 2am and I don’t care where I’ll stay anyway, just as long as I know I’m going to get out of this hell hole OK. I’ll deal just fine with any inconvenience in the meantime.

I only manage to get a few hours of fitful sleep of course, and those are while sat in a hard chair… but I end up less exhausted than I should nominally be. In the morning, I hit the pay phones and call home to tell some very worried folks the good news.

There are wall plugs where I’m spending the night, so I can mooch electricity off the airport to feed my laptop battery. I won’t have to worry about conserving battery charge – more or less the only bright spot in this entire ordeal.

After wiling away the hours, the time has finally come: the check-in counter opens. Inwardly jubilant, I stroll over and hand the clerk my passport.

… Who looks up at me and says there is a problem, and would I please head back to the ticket office to sort it out? I curse. I was hoping never to have to see that lady’s friendly smile and her maddeningly intact throat again.

Turns out it’s in fact two problems.

Nr. 1: originally, the ticket payment had been refused by my bank because it fell into an untimely moment. Since I booked my flight relatively late, I had called Air Berlin and asked them whether I could send the money by wire transfer, because if they tried to re-withdraw, it might get there too late. (As previously mentioned, German wire transfers take several days to complete, because the banks like to sit on that money so they can keep it warm.) The lady on the phone OKed this. But it appears that even though the ticket was then considered covered – after all, they let me take my inbound flight! –, somehow they subsequently lost track of the money. Don’t ask me how they managed that.

Nr. 2: there was a problem with Nobull’s credit card – so he’ll have to provide written and signed confirmation of the booking in some form (fax acceptable).

Without these problems being fixed, they’re not going to let me on the plane – but of course, they very well will ding me for the full price of the flight I booked and which I am not being allowed onto.

Unfortunately I don’t have Nobull’s cell number. He had put his home phone on file when we booked the flight, so I ask the Air Berlin clerk on the phone to try that one. No luck: no one is home, only a mailbox answers.

I have 15 minutes to sort out the situation before the check-in closes – if I don’t get it fixed in that time, I miss the flight.

Some options, those are. I know what it will come down to, and surely so do you as you’re reading this.

I head back to the pay phones and call my folks to tell them the – decidedly worse this time around – news. They mention that they’ve called the colleague and told him what happened, and that he offered to sort out any situation I might need help with. Which is something I was hoping to avoid – he’s bailed me out of more than enough situations already. But it’s no longer a matter of choice.

So I call him and give him the run-down. He tells me to call back in half an hour. I do. He tells me he has called Air Berlin and tried the entire battery of approaches in the book – all unsuccessfully. They simply will. Not. Budge. He tells me to call back again later.

The next time I call, he is at the airport back home, and speaking to the Air Berlin clerks there. He booked another flight with Air Berlin – unfortunately! They seem to be the only option for getting out of Lisbon right now. They’ve offered him to rebook today’s missed flight, which at least means it won’t be much extra. When the clerk asks him to pay the difference in cash, he has the presence of mind to ask whether that will really suffice – is the ticket actually covered? Good thing too, because she calls the headquarters in Berlin and finds out that no, the rest of the money was still pending. In other words, if he had relied on the legendary diligence and help of the Air Berlin staff, I would have been slated for another day stuck in Lisbon airport.

But by all appearances, at this point, things are finally sorted.

I sit at the airport a while longer and notice that I don’t manage to make much progress through my reading material: I keep dozing. So I throw fiscal caution to the wind and decide to see if I can find a room in a hotel. It would also be nice to have an opportunity to shower and brush my teeth. But after calling several hotels I know to be cheap, I find they are all booked solid. So for another night, sleeping in the airport like a bum it is.

This time, I’m not particularly relaxed. I can only imagine what twist of fate is going to await me tomorrow when I try to board my flight. The hours pass a lot more slowly this time. By noon, the sleep deprivation is catching up with me; I fall asleep whenever I sit down. I discover a restaurant hidden away on a third floor in the airport, where there are soft chairs – even couches! The tendons in my neck are eternally grateful.

I don’t sleep all that much or all that well anyway, of course.

Which is just as well, because it means this time I am at the check-in counter very early. With quite a bit of trepidation, I hand my passport to the clerk… who checks me in without any hesitation. I can barely believe it… I am going home! It’s all I can do not to do a few fist-pumps.

The rest of the journey is, finally and thankfully, completely uneventful.

Thanks, Air Berlin. I made my own mistakes to be sure, but it was your being deeply true to German customer service tradition that really granted me an opportunity to properly enjoy the hell out of this bloody airport – to the tune of half a thousand bucks up in air (quite literally). Double the trip price for double the hell – what more could one ask for?

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  • Wow, what an absolute mess. I think I'll skip Air Berlin in the future. Sorry you had to go through that, but I'm happy to hear you're home safe.

    • Thanks. :-)

      And yeah, no thanks to Air Berlin from me as well in the future. I mean, I didn’t exactly expect them to bend over to accommodate me, like f.ex. the tales I heard about airlines in America. But the Air Berlin staff was content doing only the absolute minimum due diligence and dropping all else in my lap. It was the colleague who sorted them out, and even he (he’s a brilliant networker and negotiator) still had to physically drive to the airport to fix the mess. That’s… qu

  • These are the experiences that life is made of.

    By the way I don't think you need worry about the dangers of having a credit card. It would only get you into trouble if you used it to spend money you don't have and it doesn't sound like you're the sort of person who would do that. As long as you make sure to pay off the full balance every month then a credit card will be nothing more or less than a useful tool.

    Of course this would have been a much shorter story if you'd had a credit card :-)

    • The main appeal was that since this is not a credit credit card, it requires no fuss at all to get one – I signed up for it online, and it only took 10 minutes. The process for an actual credit card would have been much more involved, involving paper forms and signatures. And even paying off a card monthly requires more diligence than this debit card, if only slightly.

      As for the trip, I agree, though it was unfun enough in the moment that I don’t think I’d consider the experience worth it.

  • 1. Always be exceedingly friendly to people

    2. Double and triple check everything with customer service people, and have them cross check things whatever the previous person who sent you to them told you. If they start to get frustrated with the extra work for them, play vulnerable and switch to sob story mode. You hate to impose these extra double checks on them, but if something isn't right you are a long way from home and screwed.

    3. Wherever possible, get the previous person in your epic to speak directly