Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Booking Round the World Tickets

I just thought I'd share some practical issues covering this with you.  First, it's way more difficult to do this than you think.  That's not because it's difficult to book tickets because the websites that exist now to do this are nothing short of spectacular.  We used the One World itinerary planner ( because we have loads of American Airlines ( and British Airways ( frequent flyer miles, points or whatever they purport to be.  I did take a look at the Star Alliance itinerary planner as well ( but a friend said if you want to do Australasia, use One World but if you want to do Asia/South America, use Star Alliance.  Anyway it just suited us to use One World.

The reason its way more difficult to do this is because you have to follow the rules (and who wants to do that?) and probably more importantly faced with a blank canvas it's actually way more difficult than you think to decide just what it is you really want to do.  This is the man thing when faced with the task of buying anything from the supermarket and you're faced with 12 alternatives.  Which one do you choose?  Obviously we men choose the first, nearest or easiest alternative but its not that simple with deciding how you want to fly around the world.

We therefore decided about setting a few must-do's into the itinerary and then work out how we can do them.  In elapsed time, this took about 3 weeks for my wife, Vivien, and I to do before we decided that we needed a different approach.  Practical issues kept cropping up.  For example, we had to be at a wedding in Hong Kong in January and wanted to go to the Australian Open (tennis) in Melbourne coincidentally starting just after so those became our anchor points.  Then we realised Christmas was approaching and Vivien had to organise time off from her workplace to do what we wanted.  Then we realised we had child obligations and wider family obligations too over Christmas.  Our 2 sons, Alex the elder and Alistair, always wanted to Christmas in Bermuda but as we'd just bought a condo in Toronto I thought it would be nice to spend Christmas there.  So time constraints from children and wider family had to be factored in too.  This made itinerary planning WAY more complex than if it had just been Vivien and myself to consider -- but it was all part of the fun.

A little further on and I think 5 or so iterations of the route later, we realised that we had better decide to stay in either one hemisphere or another as otherwise we'd have to carry 10 bags of stuff each.  We decided that the key things were HK and Australia which were supposedly "warm" countries so we'd focus on the southern hemisphere and only pack for 30 degree plus weather (that's Celsius by the way).  Friends were contacted in various stops and we finally, finally decided on Bermuda-Toronto-Dubai-HK-Australia-New Zealand-US-Bermuda.

The planner allowed us to plot our route without contravening any rules and then once that's fixed we then were asked to choose dates and flights.  Re dates, the website says you should just pick approximate dates/flights and if you want to change a date later, no problem and no cost.  But if you wanted to change an itinerary leg, say, there would be a cost.  Having taken so long to resolve an itinerary this sounded OK to us as the last thing we wanted to do was to change an itinerary leg now.  So we picked dates and then flights and then asked for the entire thing to be priced.  All went well until the pricing bit which is when we met (by phone) the wonderful Meredith at the One World help desk.

Apparently one of the legs we'd chosen was not a leg that was allowed by this deal.  It seems that not all flights of participating One World airlines are includable into the round the world planning thing -- don't ask me why -- even though those flights exist and even though the planning tool allowed them initially to be included in the itinerary.  This was what Meredith told us.  In addition, as we were starting the ticket from Toronto, all costs were in Canadian dollars.  This wasn't a bad thing as the fares were priced US$ for CD$ pretty much so even though the CD$ was strong there was still a slight discount versus US$.  However as we had included Meredith in our discussions by now, the charge would change from the internet CD$ price to an agent booked US$ price -- and that was some 40% higher which came as a huge shock to us.  However the wonderful Meredith over a series of conversations really helped us out in fixing the right itinerary and then fought for us to be given the original price on the basis that the planning software had a glitch in it which we should not be penalised for.  And she was successful too which was just great.  What we saved there was enough to pay for a day of indulgence later on!

Meredith is just what call centres should be like.  Her title was customer service representative and she did just that and did it spectacularly.  Meredith was kind, courteous, concerned and fought our corner.  If AA are dumb enough ever to let her go, I would heartily recommend Meredith to any customer service role.  She was brilliant and one of the reasons why I am thoroughly pleased to have chosen One World for I know that if I get in a jam, I can always call Meredith and she'll help us out.  A small digression here, I don't know about anyone else but I'm sick of calling most large organisations to be told that a particular department's customer service centre is in Liverpool (say) but the other department we need to talk to is sited in Bristol.  How on earth can anything be co-ordinated?  I know electronic is great but it sure doesn't beat speaking to one human voice and one human voice only who will resolve whatever issue it is you have.  It also is galling when one of these supersize firms announce quarterly earnings up 5% at $4.5 billion or something as you know that the reason they make that kind of money is because they're scrimping on the service which means employee numbers. Bigger is certainly not better but irritatingly however it seems to be all we have to work with in some industries these days.

So finally once all the airline bits were sorted, we had to fix in the other stuff.  Fortunately these days the internet is a wondrous tool and stuff started to fall in line really well although it has to be said I still do like the old style brochure to thumb through and did quite a bit of writing off for brochures and leaflets on the various segments and in particular the interesting stuff to do.

It was also the time we discovered if we really thought about it that we had a load of friends in various interesting places around the world.  Bermuda is an interesting place in that respect.  There's a huge amount of comings and goings of people from all around the world and meeting and becoming friendly with people is quite a quick process as well.  Once those people leave, quite often they don't go back to their countries of origin -- largely because they left there in the first place to come to Bermuda so why on earth would they want to go back later? -- and move on to other interesting destinations.  This was how Dubai was factored into the equation.  It also helped as it was considered to be Europe for airline ticketing purposes (!) so didn't break any rules.

However we were starting from Toronto not Bermuda so this meant a couple of practical things.  Firstly, Toronto over Christmas is REALLY cold.  This meant my blithe lets not take any cold clothes with us plan immediately went straight out of the window.  It may have reached 0 celsius one day but it is unlikely.  The depths were in the minus 20's and facing that in shorts, flip flops and T-shirt is not a happy prospect.  Packing therefore became immediately more of an issue.

Next, Air Canada is not a One World airline, it is Star so we had to route via AA through Chicago and London to get to Dubai.  As we discovered, Chicago is set up for cold weather conditions but London is definitely not.  Both Chicago and Toronto have a history of dreadful winter weather so are well equipped with de-icers, snow ploughs and lots of those things you use to scratch ice off car windscreens.  London Heathrow (and I presume the whole of England) has in order 3, 1 and zero of the above for we sat for 7 hours in the plane on the tarmac at Heathrow waiting patiently for first the de-icers to arrive.  Ha!  They only did when other flights had to cancel when their crews were out of hours and fortunately ours had some in reserve.  Ironically once de-iced, they discovered that the snow plough crews who had ploughed everywhere dutifully during the day when no flights were taking off or landing had all gone home by the time the plane was de-iced and ready to depart so I don't know what behind the scenes stuff took place to have someone plough the runways but it must have for ultimately it all happened and we were able to leave.

I'm not usually a whinger but it has to be said that a big one of the reasons I left England for Bermuda in 1985 was commuting.  There were others like tax, the weather and the fact that I was never home when it was light or anyone in my family were awake as well but the commute was right up there.  2 hours door to door on a good day from Herne Bay (awful place in Kent, don't go) could be turned into anything due to a wide range of "unforeseen" events ranging from rain (it always rains in England), snow (any quantities), ice on tracks or points (even in summer), cows on tracks (really), flash flooding, sudden fires on the embankments, you name it there was a reason why the trains or indeed any form of public transport didn't work properly.  It really didn't matter too much going IN to work but for some reason most disruptions happened the other way.  It was therefore not uncommon for the usual 2 hour trip to turn into a 4+ hour nightmare ended by a 45 minute taxi ride from some small country town costing a small fortune.  This was/is a miserable existence.  I was really glad to leave Herne Bay and England and find that on a bad day it would take me 9 minutes to get from my office to one of the world's top 3 beaches (this is Elbow Beach and yes I have tried it on a bet with someone from New York and won).  Commuting is such a waste of time and energy although I know people from Herne Bay who did this trip every day of their working lives between 18 and 65.  I do not know how they coped.  I managed for the brief time I endured it by reading probably 3 books a week and studying for various exams.

Anyway the point of what I was trying to say was that England is always caught out by the weather, any weather.  This of course is remarkable as the weather is always so bad and has always been so.  You would therefore have thought that planners would actually be able to plan -- but then again when you consider the idiocy of Heathrow Terminal 5, I suppose that is asking a bit too much.

Terminal 5 is the newest of Heathrow's terminals and is the place BA's flights depart from.  It is therefore very important.  Yet the very exercise in getting from another terminal into Terminal 5 is so tortuous and un-user friendly that you have to wonder what "brain" thought it up.  From many years in business, I know that to be successful you have to study success and then keep it simple (KISS in fact).  Surely that is the same with planning.  The new Hong Kong airport in Lantau is a British built masterpiece which in my mind should be copied everywhere in the world.  It just works and works brilliantly.  So why not do what they did in London where the people who designed it came from?  I was reading an article today in a New Zealand newspaper (as that is where I am currently) commenting on Sarah Palin, the lady who ran as the last US Republican candidate's running mate -- the one who lost to Barrack Obama -- and in it they described how her reputation had been tarnished by various things but also gave credit for a brief comment she made on the election of the Republican candidate in supposedly safe Massachusetts recently.  She called it a "common sense" victory.  The paper article then opined about whether the electorate would start to search for other candidates with common sense and I certainly hope so and that that becomes a global thing as I don't believe there's a whole lot of it being used in a variety of places.  One of them of course being in the planning of the ridiculous Heathrow Terminal 5.

Be that as it may, we did finally make it to Dubai and what a place Dubai is.

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