Thursday, January 12, 2012

England pt. 5: for a company called Virgin, they sure know how to fuck you

The night before we left London, G and I tried to check in for our flight on the public computer in the hotel lobby. But after several attempts, it still wouldn't let us log in.

"Well, that's a bit worrying," G said.

See, we had been told by Virgin when we originally booked our flight that we had, had, HAD to check in for our return flight at least 13 hours ahead or they could give our seats away.

So we went up to the room and called their customer service hotline, where a rep assured us that we'd be fine as long as we checked in three hours ahead of our flight. We asked if we could go ahead and check in with him, but he said that wouldn't be necessary and to just make sure that we got to Heathrow at least three hours ahead of time.

Fast forward to the next morning. We checked out and then stood in front of the building waiting for the Hotel Hoppa to pick us up and whisk us away to the airport.

And we waited.

And we waited.

"Are we standing in the right place?" I asked, as poor ailing Madre dragged herself back inside to wait in warmth.

"Well, it says 'Bus Stop' right there," G pointed out. "Plus there's a sign for the Hotel Hoppa just inside the door."

Good point.

So we waited.

And waited.

And watched a beefy fellow unloading enormous beer kegs and rolling them inside. I began humming the Donkey Kong music.

Finally, Padre went inside to ask somebody what the problem was, and he returned and said, "It's on the other side of the building!"

Ready for this? The person at the front desk told him that they occasionally switch where the bus stops.


Ordinarily I love being right---seriously, it's my bacon---but in this case, I would happily have been wrong because we wasted so much time standing outside.

Anyway, we finally caught the Hotel Hoppa and we were on our way to Heathrow. Madre and Padre, who were taking a different airline than we were, checked in for their flights while we headed to Virgin Atlantic's self-serve kiosk. We tried to check in with no success, and tried, and tried.

Finally, a customer service rep noticed our trouble and asked if he could help us. We explained, and he sent us to a desk where the woman sent us to ANOTHER desk. The woman at that desk seemed really startled that we'd been sent to her, but she did her best to help us until something happened on her computer and she sent us back to Woman #1, who I shall refer to from here on out as the Slore.

Slore took our passports and began typing away. "All right, you have seats 55E and 55F, in the middle of the plane."

"Uh, we had asked for aisle and window seats," G said.

"In order to ensure your seat preference, you must check in at least 13 hours ahead of time," Slore said.

G and I exchanged incredulous looks, and then he told her about the buggy website and how the dude on the phone said we'd be okay if we checked in at least three hours ahead of time.

"That's incorrect. That isn't the policy. It must be 13 hours ahead of time or we cannot guarantee your seat preferences. But if you'd like to purchase the extra leg room seats for an additional [can't remember the exact number, but it was substantial] pounds each, I'd be happy to set that up for you."

G was obviously on the point of losing his shit, but he managed to say through gritted teeth, "No, thank you, we'll go with the seats you mentioned."

I rubbed his arm. "At least we're seated together."

Then she made us weigh our bags and told us we'd have to check them because they were too heavy, at which point G turned an alarmingly bright shade of purple. Neither one of us likes to check luggage, and on an international flight to boot? No thanks. We started trying to shuffle things around, but it just wasn't working.

"I don't understand what the problem is," I said. "We were able to carry our bags on the plane when we came to England, and we haven't added anything substantial in the meantime."

"They shouldn't have let you do that," Slore said. Then she added, with a little sniff, "America is perhaps a bit more relaxed in that area than they should be, considering."

I looked at G, who looked at Padre (who had by now joined us), and we all looked back at her. We were all quite literally speechless. I couldn't fucking BELIEVE she actually alluded to 9/11 AND insulted our home country to our faces! She shrugged her shoulders and gave a little dramatic sigh, which was the cyanide icing on the shit-filled Pop Tart.

Slore took our bags and threw them violently onto the conveyor belt, and we watched them slide out of sight. Slore abruptly thrust our passports and boarding passes at us and wished us a happy flight with a condescending smile. I couldn't get away from that "customer service" desk fast enough.

When all four of us had gotten through security, we had some time to grab a quick breakfast with Madre and Padre. Then they had to get to their gate, so we sadly said our goodbyes and watched them walk away.

We'd gotten there pretty early---though apparently not early enough to get the seats we wanted---so we had a long time to wait. Fortunately, Heathrow had a lot of interesting stores to peek into. I bought a snow globe and t-shirt in a souvenir shop and then popped into Boots, where I bought a surprisingly good ham sandwich, candy, and more trashy magazines.

When it was time to board, we tried one more time to get our seats changed with the gate agent. She was much nicer than the Slore (which wouldn't be hard to do, assuming she didn't actually spit in our faces and insult our parentage), but it was a full flight and there wasn't anything she could do for us. At least she seemed genuinely sorry that she couldn't help us. To our irritation, though, we noticed people with WAY bigger suitcases than ours getting through with no problem. My guess is that they were able to check in online---bully for them!---and passed under the radar.

Although we were in the middle row, nobody wound up sitting to G's direct left. "There's some good luck, at least," I said.

Did you think our Virgin Atlantic woes were over? Bzzzzzzzzzt! Because you know those awesome personal inflight entertainment screens that we weren't able to take full advantage of during our flight to London because we had to sleep in order to reset our body clocks and avoid jet lag once we got there? The ones we were really looking forward to using on the return flight because this time we had to stay awake to reset our body clocks?

Ours didn't work!

I tried to finish watching Project Nim (which I'd started on our flight to London and had to turn off with 30 minutes left because we were landing) and my system was bound and determined that I should watch Bridesmaids instead. Which, don't get me wrong, is a great movie, but I'd already seen it. If I tried to select another movie, Bridesmaids picked up right where I'd left off. G was having the exact same problem with his, only his system rejected his attempt to watch The Hangover 2 in favor of Puss and Boots.

It would have been funny except, you know, it wasn't.

The flight crew (who were quite nice overall) tried not once, not twice, but three times to reset our entire row. (Our other row mate was able to watch her movie, but it kept flickering and then the screen would turn bright yellow.) Each time, we got optimistic. Each time, we were disappointed.

Now, I know this whole entry seems like a big case of White Whine, but you know what? Those fucking tickets were not cheap. And dealing with a phone rep who gave us wrong information and fucked us out of our seat choices, then dealing with the Slore, and THEN to be seated in the only fucking row with broken entertainment systems? No. Just no. And I will tell you, it was GALLING to walk down the aisle to the bathroom and see everybody else enjoying their goddamn fucking personal movie systems. I felt like the Little Match Girl pressing her face against the window and watching a rich family eat Christmas dinner, only I didn't die in the snow afterwards.

Once G and I resigned ourselves to our fate, we were able to wring some small measure of enjoyment out of our long, loooong flight. We did a cryptic crossword puzzle, played a couple of hours of Professor Layton and the Last Specter, and read. They fed us almost constantly, but the food, aside from a really good scone with clotted cream, was tolerable at best (a slice of pizza straight out of a school cafeteria) and inedible slop at worst (some horrific chicken and bacon vomit pile I couldn't even look at, much less eat). I've only been on one airline that had not just good, but phenomenal, food (Thai Airways), so I won't dock Virgin Atlantic too much for that, but you know what I WILL dock them for? Let's recap!

  • A clueless phone rep who gave us wrong information that cost us our seat choices.
  • The Slore, who was rude as fuck and about as helpful as a rubber crutch.
  • Our broken inflight entertainment systems, which were especially obnoxious when you consider that they would have been somebody else's problem if we'd GOTTEN THE SEATS WE REQUESTED. See previous bullet points.
  • Virgin Atlantic's response to my tweet was along the lines of "We're sorry you had a bad experience." You don't say!
  • Virgin Atlantic's response to my epic complaint letter, i.e. none, almost two weeks after the fact.

If one good thing comes out of our Virgin Atlantic experience, it will be spreading my vitriol gleefully over every corner of the internet I can find, like a civet marking its territory with its stank, stank musk, in hopes of warning off other people from ever using their airline.

Do not fly Virgin Atlantic unless you have no other choice. They suck. They are the worst airline I have ever flown and I used to fly on Northwest almost exclusively so I know from suck. They will give you wrong information, they will insult you to your face, they will treat you like shit, they will rob you of inflight entertainment on an 11-hour flight, they will not respond to your complaints, they will do nothing to help you, they will not upgrade you, they will not comp you for extra leg room seats but they will certainly be glad to charge you for them. Tell your friends, your family, coworkers, and strangers on the street. Do not give them any of your money.


Okay, epic rant over.

Once we landed at LAX, we went through a very, very long passport/immigration control line, and then we (miracle of miracles!) collected our bags, safe and sound. We managed to grab a Van Nuys flyaway bus almost immediately, and traffic on the 405 was shockingly light, especially considering it was New Year's Eve. We hopped in G's car and headed home, with a quick detour at Ralph's to buy cold medicine, since we were both sick by this point. When we were waiting to check out, I pointed at the magazine rack and said, "Oh my god, I recognize every celebrity on the covers!" That was a strange feeling after almost two weeks of reading magazines and only recognizing William and Kate!

As soon as we got home, we wanted nothing more than to just crawl into bed and sleep for ten hours, but we at least wanted to see 2012 in! So we played Red Dead Redemption, which woke us up considerably. We finished it with just an hour and change left in 2011, and as soon as that ball dropped in Times Square, we kissed, toasted the New Year with Nyquil, and headed upstairs.

So yeah, our vacation ended on a sour note, but for the most part, it was a sweet trip. Being in England reminded me how young America is compared to most of the world, and I loved seeing all of the old churches and buildings. And, of course, I enjoyed spending time with the love of my life and my awesome "second family", who have never treated me as any less than one of their own from the moment we met.

I mean, yeah, England was expensive as hell (and it's not like I live in Budget Town, USA), and there were some snags along the way. But for every Slore, there was a friendly tour bus driver, a chatty shopkeeper, or young man who, upon noticing Madre and Padre struggling up the underground station stairs with their enormous suitcases, immediately sprang to their aid.

For every restaurant that charged 5 pounds per person for the privilege of eating there on Christmas, or charged extra for bread or tap water, there was a Whits or a Little Lime Lounge, with their terrific food and impeccable service.

For every winceworthy admission charge, there was a British Museum or Bath Abbey.

England, I will miss your scones and your clotted cream, your women's magazines, your gentility. I will miss your beautiful countrysides, your bustling cities, your leaded glass windows, your sense of history. I'm proud to be, in a sense, one of your upstart great-great-great-great-great grandchildren.