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My parents have shared some of their budget traveling stories here before, and thankfully were willing to do so again. As you may or may not know, their travel style is a little bit different than mine. They prefer domestic trips, and are totally okay with modest airline and hotel accommodations. They are children of the “Greatest Generation”, are proud of this country (well, for the most part), and enjoy experiencing various National Parks and the great outdoors. They leverage miles and points to make their budget travels even more affordable on their retirement budget, while at the same time marveling in some of the natural beauty of this country. They were even quoted in the Wall Street Journal about some of their budget travel habits!
However being meticulous with planning and a budget doesn’t protect your trip from disaster. Here is how they almost didn’t make it on this most recent trip thanks to some of this year’s crazy winter weather, and then how it all finally fell into place for them to start their journey. These are my dad’s words about this trip.
Our trips of late have been of the bucket list variety, and we certainly have more on our scope. But, our most recent short foray was more of a mini-sequel of a previous experience with a different script, objectives and weather conditions. Last spring we visited Vegas for an Elton John concert, and while there drove up to Mt. Charleston and the Las Vegas Ski Area to check it out. It was enticing enough to our skiing instincts that we decided to try it out at some point in our near future. Last November, we pulled the trigger and put this trip together.
Spirit Airlines has been our “go to” airline for Houston to Vegas flights for the past year and a half so we checked their off peak, lowest fare options and came up with a late January offering with a Tuesday departure and a Saturday return. This schedule allowed us to fly round trip for 5,000 Spirit Miles each. The flight times put us in Vegas by 9:00 A.M. and exiting Vegas shortly before 5:00 P.M. So, we essentially had 4.5 days on ground. It was our intent to only ski one or two days, so we wanted another side trip to utilize the rest of our time.
We initially thought a winter visit to Death Valley (about 1.5 hours from Vegas) was a good choice. We had a drive-by visit there a couple of years ago in the summer when the temperature was 115. The heat, combined with the fact we only had a few hours, and because our shoes were sticking to the asphalt, prevented us from getting more than a cursory look. But, we were intrigued by its extremeness and vowed to return when they got the air conditioning fixed. However, this did not end up being the return visit to Death Valley. Instead we opted to go back to Bryce and Zion National Parks. These parks had been part of a big excursion through southern Utah we took last fall. We loved the experience and wanted more as the government shutdown in October had cut into our time there. We had also seen photos of Bryce and Zion with snow, and we hoped to witness such a wonderland.
Two days before our scheduled departure, the local weather forecast almost promised wintry precipitation for our flying day. In this neck of the woods, wintry precip is a four alarm bowl of chili, all hands on deck, 24 hour news coverage emergency. We immediately started trying to move up our flight to the night before the “Arctic Armageddon” was due to arrive. Our first three calls to Spirit Airlines were to no avail as our scheduled flight was still indicating to be on time, and no “weather waiver” had been posted. We were told we could make a change, but there would be a considerable change fee involved plus no seats were apparently available at the reward level we were booked on. More additional charges would be necessary due to that fact, or at least this is what we believed we were hearing.
We must admit that phone conversations for us now are a little challenging as our hearing performance has suffered and our ability to interpret and clearly grasp non-Texan non-Native English is severely diminished. Call centers and phone banks are not our best friends. It reminds me of the old disclaimer in the early days of TV, “The fault does not lie with your set or this station.” It really doesn’t matter if the problem is with the transmission or the reception. The end result is that you still aren’t getting the picture. Anyway, we continued to watch the weather and just about the time the forecast seemed to be getting less ominous, we received an email that the flight had been cancelled for the next morning. We were then about four hours away from the ETD of the last flight out the night before our journey was to start. I was not near a phone, and my wife was getting her hair done at the local mall.
Mommy Points saw the cancellation and sprung into action and wield her “magical powers” (made easier since a Spirit Airlines Weather Buster was now in effect – read about this fun experience dealing with Spirit Airlines here). In about 15 minutes we were ticketed on the 10:20 PM flight. We now were three hours out. Wife not home. Wife not packed. Plants needed watering. Dog needed feeding, some last minute business needed tending to, and the airport is 45 minutes away. Tick,tick,tick…. I see headlights roar into the driveway and an attractive, freshly coiffed wife rushes in. She has talked to Mommy Points and was aware of the change and the situation. We are now in a turbocharged mode. Wife is packing, and I am choring. I would say my wife packed with reckless abandon, but even her hurried state resulted in luggage Martha Stewart would be proud of.
The clock is continuing its relentless assault, and my wife takes one for the team and forgoes a makeup reapply. I am on the computer trying to book a room at Harrah’s Las Vegas for the night. The website says I already have reservations at another Harrah’s property and can’t book the room online. The clock’s second hand now sounds like Big Ben as it is approaches 8:00 P.M. I call Harrah’s and reach a very nice Harrah’s operator who pleasantly, but s l o w l y, helps me get a room at Harrah’s for the night. She mentions the reservation I had for the next night at the Paris (a sister property of Harrah’s) and wanted to know if I wanted to cancel it and stay at Harrah’s for two nights. I have mentioned our language/hearing issue and on the phone I couldn’t discern if she was saying Harrah’s or Paris. It sounded like Harrah’s and Parrah’s to me, or maybe, Haris and Paris. I wasn’t sure what I was actually hearing on the phone, but I knew what the clock was saying. Cuckoo, cuckoo. With a fair amount of uncertainty and trepidation, this generally optimistic traveler tried to reassure himself that the reservations were indeed in place and in order. I said to the Harrah’s operator something to the effect, “So, I have reservations for tonight with HARRAH’S with an H and for tomorrow with PARIS with a P.” The operator confirmed this was Correct with a C.
We grabbed our parachute sized Spirit Airlines approved backpacks and headed to the car. We did not have time to self-park so Mommy Points husband (aka our son-in-law) rode with us, so we could just get out at the terminal door. The car needed gas. We pulled into the local Exxon station. As we got out to pump the gas, and purely by happenstance, a Houston TV station reporter and cameraman approached us to get our opinion of the approaching paralyzing storm, Arctic Armageddon. They were excited to learn that our flight the next morning had been cancelled and that we were on the way to the airport to catch the last flight out. It was perfect. We offered real “human drama and hardship” caused by the second or third storm of the century that we were to experience in just the first three weeks of this year. They wished us safe journey, and we wished the airport was closer. The roads were virtually abandoned, so travel was quick and efficient. The Security Line at Terminal A at Bush consisted of just the two of us and one other person. We flew right through the screening process. We had made it! The horses hadn’t turned to mice, and the carriage wasn’t a pumpkin. Best of all, the flight was still on time, and we were a go.
The flight itself was very normal with an on time departure and arrival. We were a little apprehensive about our car rental situation since our arrival was eight hours earlier than anticipated. We had secured such a good base rate ($12.50 a day for a Hyundai Sonata) that we didn’t want to jeopardize by modifying our reservation. Our reservation was processed without problem, and the additional eight hours warranted no extra fees.
We arrived at Harrah’s about 1:30 AM Vegas time but 3:30 AM our bodies’ time. There was no check-in line and two amiable front desk attendants were waiting to help us. A quick and pleasant registration took place, and we were given a “nice room with a view of the strip” on the 17th floor, as was surely fitting our $20.00 last minute booking room rate (before resort fees, taxes, etc…). We got to the room, opened the door and were greeted by a significant cigarette odor. We closed the door, rode the elevator back down and returned to the amiable front desk personnel. We explained the situation and were apologetically given another room on the 22nd floor. Upon arrival at the new room, we quickly discovered that our new key cards would not open the door. We quietly laughed at the situation (it was now 2:00 AM Vegas time and 4:00 AM “real” time, and we felt the time and place did not call for more than a snicker).
Back to the elevators and back to the first floor we headed. The amiable attendants could see us coming from what seemed a mile away. There was no one between us and the front desk. It was a long uncomfortable walk, and we didn’t know if our clothing had been branded with a scarlet L for loser or a neon T for trouble. We were given a third room on the 23rd floor, and we bid our now newest best friends goodnight. And it was. Despite the cancellation, impending ice, Spirit Airlines, hearing difficulties with the call centers, and more, we had made it.
The actual trip itself will be relayed in a second post coming soon. And by the way, the TV interview was used locally and was apparently also picked up by CNN. Life is like a box of chocolates….