When I first became an applications engineer, the steppingstone into product management and marketing, I picked up a heavy travel schedule. It became rare to have a month where I didn’t spend at least a week on the road, and mostly to Asia, Europe and other states. Throughout the 90’s I had a heavy bicycling addiction, but the travel pretty much ended that.
My weight exploded. I was near 265 pounds, and I struggled with it. Not only did the travel make it difficult to consistently exercise, but the diet suffered. It was too easy to eat rich, calorie laden meals and it was bad.
In 2003 I got serious about fixing this, and the diet got serious. But dieting is not enough, I needed to increase my daily exercise regime. But when I was traveling1 ~ 50% of the time, and most hotels had no gym, or what they did have was decrepit consumer grade machines that were grody.
So, I got into running. Shorts, moisture wicking shirts, and running shoes always fit into the luggage, and in literally every city in the world can provide a unique running experience.
And I have many memories.
I ran around the Eiffel Tower, and Champs d’Elisee. I did a few laps on the Olympic track in Seoul (yes I did a victory lap or two). I ran in the peaceful quiet of a light snow in Osaka. I did a loop around the old city in Hamburg (there is a chocolatier in town that had the most intoxicating aromas of cacao processing - hmmmm). I tripped on rebar in Manilla2 and had to get my scrapes bandaged before putting on my suit that day.
And many more memories.
There are plenty of other good memories. I got to spend weekends in places like Paris, Munich, Krakow, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Milan, Cambridge, London, and more that I have forgotten.
Travel Agencies are the Devil
My first bad experience was in the late 1990s. My first product manager job, our corporate travel agency was Carlson Wagonlit3 and this was the era of paper tickets. To book travel you got on the phone, were connected to an agent, and you walked through the booking. They would ask for the dates, and where, and you would haggle on the flights, the stops, and hotels. Frankly, I rarely did much pushing for upgrades or better hotels. I just didn’t care, coach was fine, and I can (usually) sleep anywhere.
Then in the late 1990’s the advent of “e-tickets” was rolling out. One of the first “e-tickets” was for a trip to Japan. In February every year there was a lithography conference, and at this one I was presenting a paper we had written. So once I was confirmed to present, I called and booked about 2.5 months in advance.
The conference started on a Monday, so that meant that I needed to arrive on Sunday, so I booked a Saturday flight from SFO→NRT. The quoted fare was about $800 (in this era that was about the norm for advanced booked tickets to Tokyo) and I just put it in a folder for when I hit the road.
That Saturday rolls around, and I head to SFO, go to check in and there is a problem. The reservation existed, but apparently our travel agent never actually booked the ticket. Saturday about 1:00PM, I am at the airport, the agent is telling me there is no ticket, and that I needed to contact the travel agent to rectify. The gate agent was gracious and let me use their phone, so I called the weekend number.
An aside: Most travel agencies of that era had normal business hours, and an after-hours operator. This worked ... mostly.
I was on hold, as the operator was busy, and after 5 minutes of being on hold, I got a message that said that I had hit the maximum time they would leave me in the queue, as longer wait times led to dissatisfaction, and then they hung up on me.
Frantic, I called our group administrative assistant, who picked up her cell (she was an ANGEL) and explained it. About 30 minutes later the ticket was issued, and I got on the plane.
The reason the travel agent gave for not booking the ticket in November was that they thought they could work the arbitrage and get a better fare (lower price) and pocket the difference as a profit. They also thought that there was a likelihood that I would cancel the trip and then they wouldn’t have to cancel the ticket.
But as Billy Mays would say, “Wait, there’s more…”
Different job, bigger company, with an internal travel agency. I needed to travel from San Jose to Austin. American flew that route directly, and I had made that trip many times.
But the internal travel agency had an unwritten policy. All flights had to have at least one stop. It was a policy rooted in the belief that multi-stop travel is cheaper. Only directors and above got to book direct flights.
The only flights they offered were on airlines and routes that were bizarre. I picked a United flight through Denver.
When I went to the counter to check in, the agent at the desk looked at my flight info and asked why didn’t I use the American direct flight.
The “Legal” Connection
Later, I was going to visit a company in Korea that did semiconductor packaging. I needed to get from Tucson, Arizona to Busan, Korea. Busan is an industrial center, so there were limited options to get there. I called our travel agency (Austin Travel) and I got “Ronnie”.
I explained the need, and he searched, and we got the flights booked. I was flying UAL from Tucson, through LAX to Tokyo Narita. But United didn’t connect to Busan, so I had to switch airlines to Northwest to do that last hour of a flight.
No big deal. But what I didn’t clue in on was that the connection time to Busan was about 45 minutes. That meant about 45 minutes from landing to takeoff of the flight to Busan.
The day of the flight rolls up, and I am in the airport for my 6:30AM flight to LAX then on, and I check in. But, since NWA aren’t a codeshare with United, I couldn’t get ticketed through to Busan.
No big deal, there is an Nortwest counter. I walk over there, and they tell me that since the connecting flight is more than 24 hours in advance (international dateline and all) that I would have to go to the desk in Tokyo and check in again. In less than 45 minutes.
That means that I had to land in Tokyo, clear passport control, collect my bag, go through customs, go up 3 levels to the check in desk, check in, go though customs again, and get to the gate.
In 45 minutes.
When I landed in Los Angeles, I pulled out my cell phone and called “Ronnie” and explained how this clusterfuck was going down. His answer “Well, my computer told me it was a legal connection4”. Bollocks.
I did make the connection, setting records for getting through passport control, customs, my bag miraculously was almost first off the conveyor, and there was no line at the NWA desk.
But it was high stress
Ronnie Strikes Again
A couple of years later, I had back-to-back trips. I was visiting our Santa Barbara office from Monday thru Thursday on week one, then I was visiting customers in Texas (Dallas area), and I had both trips ticketed.
On Wednesday, it became clear that I needed one more day in Santa Barbara, so I dial up the travel agency. I get my buddy from the last saga, Ronnie, on the phone. I explain clearly that I needed to extend my stay in Santa Barbara, and to add a night’s stay at the hotel, and switch my return flight to Friday afternoon.
He says he’s got it, and he will send me the updated itinerary.
I got it, but I was in meetings, so I didn’t look at it until later in the day.
When I opened it, I was horrified. He had canceled my return flight from Santa Barbara to Tucson, and my flight out from Tucson to DFW.
I get on the phone, get him on the line, and just rant. How the fuck did he interpret that as what I asked for. His response was I figured you were going to drive. Gobsmacked I fucking lost it. I *might* have even dropped a few F-Bombs. I asked him if he knew that it was about a 1,500 mile drive, and that it was abso-fucking-lutely insane to do that as a road trip in a fucking rental car?
I ended up going from two ~ $200 airfare trips to suddenly last minute, full fair coach fares and cost our company almost $2K more. All because of the incompetence of a travel agent.
After that, if when I called the agency, and I heard his voice, I would hang up without even speaking. I had been screwed too many times by his idiocy.
Carlson Wagonlit Strikes again
My next job was good. But after I joined, I learned that they also used Carlson Wagonlit travel. And while there weren’t any cock ups, it was like pulling teeth to get a decent itinerary scheduled. I do not think it was intentional, but they did work the edges for a leg up.
For grins and giggles, I looked them up, and it seems that they are sanitizing their name/reputation, rebranding as CWT. New look and feel, probably the same mediocrity of service.
A standard joke from the era is that most product management job postings would say “25% of time traveling” meant that you spent that much time on airplanes. About accurate. I once did trade shows for 12 out of 15 weeks - ouch. ↩
There was some sidewalk maintenance that wasn’t marked and I stumbled into it. But, a side note, I found the Filipino people to be super friendly, but Manilla is the only place I ever felt unsafe. ↩
Wagonlit is pronounced “wagon-ly” although I think it is a German surname so it probably is properly “vagon-ly” ↩
This means that it didn’t break any rules that would have prevented the ticket being issued.