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Editor's note: Though we at Get Lost Magazine are most sympathetic and sorry for Riverman's ordeal buying tickets on line, we lament the fact that he obviously missed the March issue article on buying tickets to Paris on Priceline. Or maybe he read the story and went ahead anyway, which would be really, well, something we would have done. The moral of both stories is: Try your travel agent, ANY travel agent, first. On line deals can be really crummy.

(Read Virgin's response to Riverman's complaints in the September 2000 issue letters.)



 


Virgin Aversion:
A Tale of Woe and Misery

by Riverman



 


Well, I sure learned something this summer. I learned about purchasing tickets on the internet, and about the service and assistance offered by Virgin Airlines. I had a real adventure, and I'm dying to see how it ends.

This past month, after 4 years teaching in the International School in Israel, it was time to make the travel arrangements to relocate to my new school in Latvia. I was holding a rather nice severance payment to fund the move, and I had been daydreaming for years on how I was going to use my share to make the transition via Arizona to the Northern Baltics. I had considered buying a BMW and riding across Europe, shipping it to NYC, and riding across the US. I had considered a transatlantic cruise, or even buying a sailboat and hiring a crew to sail across. The sky was the limit, and my only criterion was that it be stylish and adventurous, as a reward to myself for four somewhat difficult years as an expatriate. And reasonably priced, of course.

However, the short summer vacation (6 weeks) I had been given quashed most of my plans and left me with the traditional uninspired option: flying commercial. Images of myself as Indiana Jones or Captain Cook...leaning casually on the mainmast, vodka tonic in hand, Hawaiian shirt gently flapping in the breeze of an Atlantic summer night...faded and were replaced with more mundane visions of a middle-aged traveler with a fistful of plane tickets and two suitcases weighing no more than 20 kg each, jostling his way through the airports of Europe and America.. Hardly even fodder for a good Get Lost story. In any case, I had accrued enough frequent flier miles with several airlines to qualify for upgrades, so I was prepared to enjoy that degree of luxury, at least. Boy, did I have one seriously rude surprise coming!!

My itinerary was convoluted and complicated, as my girlfriend and I needed to rent a car for a month, stop in Flagstaff, leave from LA, make a short visit in Baltimore and head off to Latvia. Airfares out of Tel Aviv are notoriously high, so the first thing my travel agent did was to reserve seats for us on a Charter Flight from Tel Aviv to London, arriving in Gatwick around breakfast time. We reasoned that we could find a much better rate flying round-trip from London to the US, and then on to Riga on the return leg. So far, so good.

Next, we began the intensive search for reasonable airfares out of London. We searched open-jaw routes, discount airfares, charter flights, fly/drive packets, everything. It looked like our car rental and the various stopovers in Baltimore and LA were going to push our airfares through the roof, and I was beginning to despair. We tried every conceivable permutation of departure ports, arrival ports, dates and lengths of stay, but to no avail. It was going to be stupidly expensive. My agent advised me to continue the search via internet and keep him informed. I also contacted a different agent to see what comparative fares she could find, and she promised to start working on it as soon as possible.

Then, one evening about 2 weeks before departure time, I had some luck! Sitting at my classroom computer late one night, Travelocity.com gave me a great round-trip fare from London to LA on several airlines for $630 per person! I was jazzed, as I knew I could rent my car in LA for a good rate, and also fly r/t to Baltimore from there! The plan was starting to take shape!

The airlines offering the great rate included the ones that I could get a free upgrade on, but there, at the bottom of the screen, for a mere $20 more, was a flight from London to LA offered by Virgin Atlantic.

Hmmmm, the mythical Virgin Atlantic. I had heard rumors about this upstart airline. Of course, every human on the planet knew of the owner, a British entrepreneur and adventurer who made a reputation for himself for bucking the rules and the status quo, and doing things his way, with panache and a flair for fun and adventure. Somewhere through the years, I had heard how Virgin's seats were much more luxuriant than any other airlines, how the food and service were second to none, how they had somehow found a recipe for success that offered fun, comfort and service that the other airlines could not, or would not, match. Hey, if they wanted to lavish their passengers with pandering and comfort way beyond the industry standard just to show the big airlines how it is supposed to be done, well more power to them and sign me up!! I had never flown them, but I was always a closet admirer, and this was my opportunity to get a piece of the action!

I clicked on the windows comparing flights, dates and destinations, and found the 'special airfare' to LA. This was the rock-bottom fare they offered, and there was still limited availability for this incredible rate, so I raced through the options until the screen asked that fateful question of no return; credit card number.

I had never purchased anything on line before, so I took a few minutes and read their 'privacy policy'. Well, it seemed secure enough, and I could always fight any pirated charges that might appear. And if I wait another day, the limited availability seats might be all gone... What the heck, millions of people buy things on line every day. OK, I thought, I'll take the plunge.

Trepidaciously, I inputted the 16 digits, expiration date, and clicked 'OK'. The screen replied with a message warning that these tickets were non-refundable, and changes in itinerary were subject to severe penalties, and was I really sure I wanted these tickets? Yeah, of course I was, I had already gone through the soul searching, and I impatiently clicked the OK button. I was rewarded with a message that 2 round-trip tickets from Heathrow to LAX were now issued in my name and awaiting me at Heathrow airport in London on the day of departure. Wow! I could hardly wait to tell my girlfriend we were flying transatlantic on Virgin Atlantic Airlines!

The next day, I was so psyched to tell my travel agent that I had secured the key piece of my travel plans via internet. I called and told her what I had done. London to LA for $650. "Oh no!" she said. "I could have gotten that same ticket for you for $470!" I almost gagged! Why did the internet say this was a special low fare, only available via internet? Apparently, she had access to some bargain basement rates that the web site didn't offer. Insider stuff.

"Well, never mind" she said, "What's done is done. By the way, you know you could have flown from Tel Aviv on El Al and connected with Virgin in London for a total of $750, and not even had to get from Gatwick to Heathrow. But you were already holding those Charter tickets..".

AAaaaugh!! Why wasn't THAT on the internet site?? I felt utterly betrayed, but like she said, what was done was done. I was still flying Virgin Atlantic, and so it couldn't be all that bad!

Here comes the good part: A week before my flights, I went in to get my tickets for the charter flight, and my old travel agent said "I've been trying to call you! Bad news: your charter has been canceled! But there is another flight the next day that has room if you want."

Oh NO!! This was a DISASTER! There was no way to get to Heathrow on time for my flight to the US! Hurriedly, I called Virgin and asked to speak to a manager.

"Please help me" I began. "I have some internet tickets for a flight next Wednesday out of London, but my originating flight into London has been canceled. I need to either leave London one day later, or else add the Tel Aviv-London leg onto my existing ticket"

"Sorry" she replied, "Your special discount internet airfare comes with severe restrictions, You cannot make any changes and there are no refunds."

"Yes, but I don't want a refund!" I pleaded, "I just want to add another leg onto the flight, and give you more money. I'll even keep the same seats!"

"Nope, I'm sorry. The rules say that you cannot make any changes to this ticket, except for upgrading to a higher class."

"OK, so if I upgrade, then can I add the additional leg?"

"Yes, if you pay the $750 per person to upgrade to Premium class, then you can pay the additional $700 per person to add the Tel Aviv- London leg."

"But the entire flight is only $750 in Economy!"

"Yes, but not in Premium class. Or you can pay $750 to upgrade to Premium class, and that ticket will allow you to fly the next day."

"But then I still have to get to London! That doesn't help!"

"No, but we can get you there the next day for, let's see...$700. But I cannot offer you any refunds."

"Please, this makes no sense! I don't want any money back! I only want to originate in Tel Aviv! I understand that the fine print says 'no refunds', but don't want a refund! I want to pay you an additional $150 to buy a flight that you already offer, but which wasn't listed on your web site! Or to fly the same flight, but one day later. Do you have the authority to allow that?"

"Oh yes, sir. I have the authority to make that change, but you have not sufficiently convinced me that I need to do that. You have the option of purchasing an upgrade for $750 and an additional ticket from Tel Aviv for $700 more, so there is no need to bend the rules. It is because of the incredibly low rate that you received that we have these increased restrictions. Would you like me to make these changes for you for an additional $1450 per person?"

"You've got to be kidding! I'm not going to pay $1450 to fly from Tel Aviv to London!"

"OK then, sir. Thank you for flying Virgin Atlantic Airlines."

I hung up, completely disgusted. Was this the same Virgin Atlantic I had heard rumors about being such a service-oriented business? I was shocked. I felt trapped and lied to.

Eventually, I found another charter that flew 3 days *earlier*, and worked triple-time to be moved out of Israel in time for the new, earlier flight. I managed to get all my arrangements done, grade all my finals, close all my accounts, and I shook hands with the moving company as they loaded my last boxes, and then hopped right into a taxi for the airport.

But, hey, at least I was still flying Virgin Atlantic! Luxury, luxury, luxury! Fun, fun, fun!

A few days later, we arrived at Heathrow to retrieve our tickets, flushed with anticipation. As we were flying on an Airbus, I asked for seats as far forward as possible.

"We're sorry, sir. Your fare only allows us to seat you in rows 41 or above."

"Yowsa! I get airsick if I sit in back. Isn't there a possibility of moving up into the twenties?"

"No, sir, We have you seated in the last remaining seats on the flight, in the middle of the center section of row 46. If you were a Premium passenger, we would be able to seat you farther forward. But I see you purchased discount tickets on the internet, so you have to take whatever seats we have remaining after our full-fare paying passengers have pre-selected their seats. Have a nice flight."

Dismayed and disillusioned, I squeezed into my seat, the absolute worst placement I have ever had, and flew the 11 hours from London to Los Angeles. Sure, the games and abundance of movies distracted me from the cramped leg room and nauseating heave of the air currents, but there was nothing exotic or luxuriant about the meal, the service, the cutesy packet of travel accessories, including a little yellow rubber duckie (on a *transoceanic* crossing...hmmmm), or the magazines and booklets filled with the arrogant and smug attitude of the airline. Before the flight was even half over, my girlfriend and I decided that we were sick of being third-class citizens, and we wanted to upgrade our return flights to Premium class.

So, after a few days in Flagstaff, I called the Virgin desk to ask to upgrade our return tickets. A pleasant sounding woman answered. I asked about the change.

"Oh, I see on my computer that you spoke to an agent in London a few weeks ago, and she told you that you could not make any changes."

"Not quite," I replied. "She said I could upgrade to a higher class seat."

"Well, according to my records, you purchased a special discount internet airfare with restrictions, so if you want to upgrade, you will have to forfeit your return seat and buy a full-fare one-way seat for $3500."

"$3500??! That can't be right! I'm sure that there must be a mistake! Can't I just add on to my return ticket and buy a higher class seat?"

"No, sir."

Click.

Oh. My. GOD!!! She HUNG UP on me!!! I was stunned!

I immediately called back, hoping to get her back again and to demand to speak to her supervisor. However, I got a rather pleasant man who actually took the time to listen to my request.

"Ahh, I see on my computer that you have spoken to our agents in London and have called here before."

"What's up with that? Does your computer say that I'm some sort of persona non grata or something??"

"Well, no sir, nothing like that, but you *have* made unusually high contact..."

"Well, this has been one unusually troublesome ticket, and I haven't had the slightest bit of assistance from either office!"

"Well, when you purchase those special discount internet airfares, they come with a lot of restrictions. The only thing I can suggest is that you ask the ticket agent at the airport the day you fly out if you can upgrade or move forward."

"I will. And how much will that cost?"

"I can't tell you. You'll have to talk with the agent, but it doesn't look good. Your ticket has too many restrictions. If you had bought the $750 fare from Tel Aviv, I could make the change for you or even seat you in better seats. Good luck, and next time, avoid those internet tickets."

So that's what I've learned so far. Avoid those internet tickets. Its a trap, they aren't the cheapest tickets and the restrictions make them worse than even a more expensive alternative. And if you fly Virgin Atlantic, don't even think of asking for someone to assist you if something goes awry with your travel arrangements. Give up any ideas that it is an airline that offers exceptional service, comfort, or most of all, customer assistance. I have NEVER had an airline agent hang up on me, or refuse to allow me to add onto a ticket I was holding, or to upgrade (even for a fee).

I'm going to tell this story to the manager when I get to LA, and after that, this Frequent Flier is never going to buy internet tickets, or fly Virgin Airlines or Virgin Atlantic again. I've learned MY lesson.

I wonder how the seats and service are on British Airways....


Myron "Riverman" Buck never tires of learning things the hard way. He has three previous stories in Get Lost magazine to prove it. And we're betting he feels NOT like a virgin after this.

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