Wednesday, December 23, 2009

American Airlines Sucks

I had a special surprise for my readers -- I was going to be writing from Hawaii for three weeks! But thanks to the complete incompetence of American Airlines, my parents and I were never able to take this trip of a lifetime.

So, American Airlines, I am officially ripping you a new asshole and here's the long story why:

My brother left Miami for Los Angeles nearly 20 years ago and he recently moved to Oahu with his wife. My parents, who are in their seventies, have always missed my brother in spite of family visits over the years, so for them it was a big deal to go to an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, especially at their age.

My dad purchased three plane tickets for us early in September -- Miami to Los Angeles, Los Angeles connecting flight to Honolulu -- reverse itinerary on the way back. My dad is old school and doesn't believe in any electronic ticketing business, so he went to the American Airlines office in Coral Gables and purchased the tickets in person. No travel agent, no Expedia or Travelocity; this was straight from the horse's mouth, if you will. He got the traditional ticket stubs in his hands and was happy.

Without much else to do, the retirees were eagerly planning the trip. Travel guides were read. Packing started a month before hand. And in Oahu, my brother was planning fun stuff for us to do. I even planned a tweetup with @neenz, to connect with the social media scene on the island. I was also looking forward to doing some travel writing here on Sex and the Beach, because I'm reviving that part of my career. This was important for me on a professional level.

On Monday morning, we took a taxi at 8:30 am from South Miami and arrived at Miami International Airport around 8:50 am, about two and a half hours before the 11:30 flight to Los Angeles. We had one piece of luggage to check. Not surprisingly, the airport was crowded and lines were long. We decided to check baggage curbside. That line was chaotic, but shorter than the ones inside.

After one hour, we finally reached the counter, the skycap told us that there was a security issue and that we would have to stand in line again inside. This is when the real cluster fuck started.

"What security issue?" I asked. When I got a blank stare and no answer, I asked again: "Do you mean a random security check?" "Yes," he answered hastily, while shooing us off.

At this point, my sister, who was hanging out with us and just happens to be a Miami-Dade County Aviation employee now for nearly 30 years, was livid. She approached an airport staff member who was outside and he told us, in a rather hurried and brutish manner, that we had to get our boarding passes at the self check-in machine and that we would be issued a luggage tag. He pointed to some random location in the lobby, which wasn't the TSA section where travelers normally drop off luggage.

OK, whatever. At this point, we were desperate to have a boarding pass in hand.

The self check-in machine would not issue us boarding passes, so he told us to skip the regular check-in line and speak to a woman behind the counter. He then ran off.

We did speak with her. When we explained the situation, she was disgustingly rude. She literally tossed her hair, raised her nose and said "I'm not dealing with you people" and stormed off. Yes, she walked away, huffing and puffing. I wish I had gotten her name. She was a complete bitch.

We tried self check-in again, to no avail. An American Airlines staff member tried to help us. He was actually very nice, but had no answers. He directed us to a supervisor, but she refused to expedite the process for us, so we had to stand in line.

While we were in line, my mother went to sit down at my sister's office by Concourse C. There was no freakin' place to sit anywhere! Her hip was hurting. She was also short of breath from the anxiety. She has high blood pressure so we thought this was best.

I got on the phone with American Airlines and reached a friendly customer service agent who told me that our dates of birth were missing from the reservation. Apparently, American Airlines started taking this information after September 14th and my dad had purchased the plane tickets earlier. He then asked me to try self check-in again, but it still didn't work.

He then said that in the worst case scenario, we could try again tomorrow, as the same itinerary was still open. He also said that if we took a different flight our bag could still be waiting for us in Honolulu.

By the time we made it to the counter, the flight would be leaving in half an hour. We learned the flight had been delayed twenty minutes, so we had 50 minutes of grace time. The attendant, who was a little harsh at first, called the gate and said that the flight would be boarding in twenty minutes.

So here was the deal: we could in theory make the flight, if we ran and got past security in time; however, the problem was that it was too late to check luggage. And, unlike what the phone agent had told me, we were obligated to be on the same flight with the suitcase, because the bag could not go on a different flight all the way to Honolulu.

And obviously there was another problem: my parents can't run to anything, sheesh! I could, but I wasn't about to leave them behind. And nobody offered to get us wheelchair access.

Already, my dad had resigned himself to missing the flight. I could see the disappointment in his face, which was getting red. He has an arrhythmia condition and I didn't want him to get angry. Luckily, I was there to handle the situation with grace and diplomacy, which I somehow managed to muster. But believe me, I was seething.

The counter attendant hailed over the same supervisor as before. I explained the situation. They had suggested we buy two regular carry-ons and leave the big suitcase behind, which was really ridiculous, because we still wouldn't have made it to the gate in time. Then, after some consulting among themselves, they tried to give us highest priority stand by on the next flight to Los Angeles at 1:45 PM. The connecting flight to Honolulu from Los Angeles was overbooked by three. The supervisor said that odds were good we'd make that too.

Otherwise, there would be no more flights until December 24th, they said, contrary to what the phone agent had told me. My dad was very angry that he could not get his original flight and didn't want to risk a standby nightmare getting stuck in Los Angeles.

This kind of thing might work with young, adventurous travelers, but not with senior citizens.

My parents were so fed up at this point, my mom had to take a tranquilizer, and my sister had to call her boyfriend, interrupting his day at work, to come pick us up, as she didn't want my dad to shell out another $35 for a taxi. My sister took the rest of the day off work, too.

I had asked the supervisor what the security issue was and she had no answer. I was very determined to get to the bottom of this. At least we could learn something from the experience, right? But I never really got a clear answer.

On the way home, I spent an hour on the phone with a very pleasant American Airlines agent. She kept apologizing for putting me on hold, but she said she was searching all the records to get our entire history.

Her conclusion, which she claimed was certain, was this: in October, the Honolulu to Los Angeles flight had been changed. We were never notified of this (we should have been) but my dad, having some presence of mind, went back to the American Airlines ticketing office in Coral Gables earlier this month to make sure everything was still OK. By the way, that office has no phone number. You have to go there in person.

That leg of the itinerary now had a different flight number and was only 15 minutes later than the old flight. This had nothing to do with the airline, she said. Usually it's some FAA regulation that forces airlines to change flight numbers and times.

Very well. No big deal, right? Well, apparently it was, because the self check-in computer did not register the change in flight number, it did what any computer would do: it couldn't process a section of an itinerary that no longer existed. So then it wasn't a security issue, right? It was a computer glitch, apparently. I guess you can't blame my dad for being old school!

And here's where things get even more convoluted. Who was responsible for updating the self check-in computer? Shouldn't that be done automatically? Or was the ticketing agent in the Coral Gables office supposed to notify the computer that we had approved the change? And furthermore, why was my dad never notified of the change? Why were we not told that there'd be a security issue at curbside check-in?

We still don't know what the fuck really happened. Even fucking Sherlock Holmes wouldn't be able to figure this one out.

Listen folks, that same ticketing agent, whom my dad visited today, is not taking responsibility for this. And I'm still not convinced that the flight change was the so-called security issue.

The phone agent I spoke to was very kind. She reimbursed us immediately, but it will take one or two billing cycles on the credit card to get the refund. She also told me to check TSA's website. Apparently, you can send TSA a letter asking you to be removed from a terrorist list if you happen to be on one. "I'm a terror, for sure," I said. "But definitely not a terrorist." We laughed about it. I want to personally thank her for being so patient.

But you, American Airlines? No thank you and here's a hearty fuck-off.

Every single dealing we had with airport and airline staff at was so rife with inconsistent information that at the end of the day, even the nice employees didn't know what the hell they were talking about. We kept getting different answers to our questions.

We purchased those plane tickets fair and square. We were there on time and in spite of the blizzard up north, we should've been on this flight. This happened because American Airlines did not have its shit together, period.

I'm young and can handle this, but you broke my parents' hearts. They are in their seventies and they dreamed of spending Christmas with my brother and his wife. It was all about being there on Christmas Eve. They fucking planned this trip since September, for pete's sake! You have lost some great customers who have been faithfully using your airline for European trips ten years plus and counting. You can't reimburse us for the disappointment, can you?

And you couldn't have picked a better person to piss off, American Airlines. I'm a forum editor and writer at Miami's premiere travel website, Miami Beach 411, where I have already bitched about your airline's incompetence. Millions of people visit that website and thousands of people trust my opinion.

Wow. I am all for being a nice person and supporting prosperity in business, but when you shit on me and my family, I gotta tell it like it is.

So, American Airlines, don't let the door hit your ass on the way out. And as for you, Miami International Airport, that's a whole other blog post.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Back to Miami, Part 4: Lazy Days in Florida

A retrospective series on how I missed my trip to San Francisco and found my way back to Miami from Atlanta, traveling as a single woman alone, using only public transportation to visit friends and do some backyard tourism in Florida.

In Part 3, I wrote about how I made it back to Miami on Greyhound bus, Amtrak and Tri-Rail. Here's what I did in between.


The natural side of Florida. Picture courtesy of jimbowen0306.

An old friend of mine from high school moved to Tallahassee for college and never came back to Miami. She still lives in the state capitol with her husband and two kids, so it was catch-up time. The rest of her family moved there too and as her father had recently passed away, it meant much for me to see her mom, who has always been my second American-pie gringa mama.

When things got too Cuban for me at home during my rebellious teenage years here in Miami, I could always seek peace and quiet (plus great liverwurst sandwiches) at my friend's home. Her parents always treated me like I was part of the family. I enjoyed vicarious American Christmas holidays with them -- we never had fresh baked cookies and English-language carols at home, but my friend's family didn't have roast pork either -- so I had the best of both worlds growing up here in Miami.

And we had history here. Kids, parents, everybody was involved in Coral Gables High School Band. My friend and I participated in three Orange Bowl parades and half time shows, as well as countless Coral Gables High School football games.

My friend used to say I brought out the Cuban in her and I always joked that she brought out the American in me. This trip was only the third or fourth time I've seen my friend since high school, but as always, it was if no time had passed.

I didn't do much touristy stuff in Tallahassee and that was just fine. The first night, I stayed at The Governor's Inn where my friend is a manager. The boutique hotel is charming and offers a great continental breakfast.

Across the cobblestoned street, there's a classic college pub where I enjoyed a drink after my long Greyhound ride, playing career adviser to the sexy blonde bartender who was graduating from FSU and wanted to be a sports psychologist. She showed me the page where she had posed for a campus charity calendar. I hope she wasn't using that as a resume item for graduate school.

On day two, I stayed at my friend's house and enjoyed some real Southern hospitality for a few days. My friend's home is on the outskirts of the city in a neighborhood surrounded by forests. Actually, her home is practically in a forest, so the sound of cicadas and other critters at night was intense. What stars we could see through the dense canopy shone bright in the dark sky.

It was great to just kick back at night outside, surrounded by huge pines and oak trees. BBQ and beers and talk was all we needed. Another culinary highlight was making Cuban black beans for the family and finding dragonfruit, of all things, in a suburban Tallahassee Publix.

By day, I watched Spongebob Squarepants with her kids, hiked in the woodland part of their property and cooled off in their huge inflatable pool, which was filled with fresh spring water from the Florida aquifer. It's hard to explain, but the water felt silky smooth and was so refreshing, I thought maybe, just maybe, this was the whole fountain of youth thing, though I didn't look any younger after dipping in the pool.

I also had a touching conversation with one of her sons about the trials and tribulations of being a sixth grader -- unloyal crushes, bullies, assholes. Yeah, those are the typical situations we all have to deal with through life, son.


Canoeing near Deland. Photo courtesy of anoldent.

After a few days and two Greyhound bus rides later, I ended up in Deland.

My friend Doug from Miami Beach 411 and his roommate Dave graciously hosted me for two nights at their home in Deland, a sleepy but quirky little town in Central Florida, close to Daytona. Home to Stetson University, Deland is definitely a college town but seems even more old Florida than Tallahassee.

The first thing we did was stop at a 24-hour Walmart for wine and snacks. The last time I had been in a Walmart was in some remote part of Texas during a long-ass road trip from Miami to Colorado. Walmart late at night in Central Florida is surreal, especially if you've just spent half a day on Greyhound buses. Our cashier was at least 80 years old and wore as much makeup as dearly departed Tammy Faye Baker. God bless her though, she was sweet as pie and as charismatic as Tammy Faye. You don't get that kind of customer service in Miami.

The next day, we went canoeing in the St. John's River out of Hontoon Island State Park. I rowed up front while Doug rowed in the back. It's said that you can always test the resilience of a couple if both can row together. Doug and I weren't a couple, but we did pretty well, even in the stifling heat. Battling against the current was rough, yet we managed in some kind of awkward choreography.

The canoe trail along one of the branches of the river was beautiful. Gorgeous homes and lush trees flanked the north bank of the river. The south bank was completely wild with native flora. At one point, we came upon a row of towering cypress trees, their knobby roots sticking out of the water. Save for glimpses of homes and the occasional pontoon boat docked in someone's back yard, the scene was almost primeval.

We didn't see much wildlife, save for one alligator, which seems to have spooked Doug. The river was wide and deep; no worries about close contact with gators here.

I was horrified, however, when I got my period unexpectedly early, midway through the two-hour canoe trip. (Hey, this is a single woman's guide to chronic living, so it's completely appropriate to mention menstrual mishaps here!)

Doug and I are friends, but he's a guy and it's not like I was about to blurt out loud "Shit, I can't believe I just got my freakin' period early, right here in the middle of the Saint John's River, on a hot summer day, canoeing with a dude who probably doesn't know a tampon from Q tip," which is exactly what went through my mind. I was very concerned about the embarrassment I would experience were I to have an accident! But there I was, in a canoe -- nothing to do but row on.

There were other matters that were more important. Doug rescued his schizophrenic roommate from the streets a few years ago and is his caretaker. At first I was a little creeped out about the idea of staying in the same house with Dave, but actually he just kept to himself and was very well-behaved, almost child-like, really. He spent hours laughing to himself in a back porch and when he was with us, he barely spoke.

Doug has sinced moved to San Diego because he gets better government support there to take care of Dave. Doug is an angel, probably earning huge karma points in that big bank in the sky. How many of us would have such trust, compassion and patience?

On the last night, we had dinner at a great Thai restaurant followed by drinks at a very groovy wine and beer bar. I was off to West Palm Beach the next morning but not before stopping by a truck where a man was selling spicy boiled peanuts.


Some local friends picked me up at the Amtrak station just in time for happy hour at O'Shea's Irish Pub on Clematis. Later, they dropped me off at an old friend's house in Palm Beach Gardens. More catching up talk and sleep -- I wouldn't do much here.


I arrived here via Tri-Rail and took a taxi to the Hyatt Pier 66, one of my new favorite South Florida properties. Located by a luxury mega-yacht marina, the remodeled Hyatt has a lovely pool area with lush landscaping. It pleased my eye, because I'm sick and tired of South Beach being all concrete and silicone. And in spite of the luxury boats, the property itself is not over-the-top ostentatious. It's elegant, to be sure, but relaxed and just right. The room rates weren't bad either, and that was a relief, since I was traveling on the same budget I had planned for San Francisco. My room had a huge terrace and a fabulous view of the Intracoastal, Port Everglades and the Atlantic ocean.

It was great just to be on my own again, but that wouldn't last long. The marketing guy in charge of social media knew I was coming and we ended up throwing a somewhat impromptu sunset tweetup at the hotel's waterfront café. A few more local friends showed up at Pelican Landing, which is now one of my top ten waterfront establishments. It's off the beaten path -- you need to walk through the marina to get there. Try the fish tacos and conch fritters, if you go.

The next day, I took the watertaxi to the Stranahan House on the river. At $14 per person for a full day, I enjoyed getting about Fort Lauderdale this way -- I enjoyed it immensely, in fact -- and I didn't even take advantage of all the stops! The taxi staff is entertaining and you can even bring booze on board. It's absolutely and utterly ridiculous that Miami doesn't have a similar service on the bay between Miami Beach, Downtown, Brickell and Coconut Grove.

The Stranahan House is a must-see for locals and visitors.

The Stranahan House deserves a post all its own, but suffice it to say it's an essential stop in Fort Lauderdale. Home to one of the city's founding fathers, the house has been exquisitely restored with authentic furnishings and decorations. Our tour guide was a sweet lady -- a retired college professor originally from Eastern Europe -- who made the city's history come alive for us in a very relaxed, one-hour tour.

From the Stranahan House, I walked down Las Olas and then took the water taxi again to Downtowner Saloon, which had been recommended by some locals, for some refreshment. This is another new favorite, laid-back waterfront spot. I'd be returning there later that night with some friends to eat and I'll probably end up there again next time I'm in Fort Lauderdale. Try the clam chowder -- it's rich and actually tastes like clams.

The whole downtown riverfront area of Fort Lauderdale is quite pleasant, in spite of the fact that there is a penitentiary amid the expensive, towering condos. Miami is now only coming to realize the value of clean, well lit and beautiful riverfront areas, though clearly, both rivers have very different characters and functions.

Taking phallic imagery to a whole new level ... these yummy tapas-style plates dominated the brunch at Hyatt Pier 66. Well worth the indulgence!

The next day, I splurged on brunch at the Hyatt's Pier Top, a venue located on the top of the hotel tower that rotates 360 degrees every hour. Brunch was about $60 (with discount) and featured all kinds of all-you-can-eat mouth-watering small-plate goodies, as well as fresh sushi, a carving station, desserts, and of course, endless drinks. A light jazz duo accompanied guests but the real star of the show was the view -- simply breathtaking, especially on a clear blue day.

(Pier Top is not your typical restaurant. It's only open for brunch on Sundays and for special events. Call ahead for reservations.)


After such a sumptuous repast, going back home on Tri-Rail was quite the downer. But I made it to South Miami by train, metrorail and finally, by foot.

This trip taught me that it's completely possible to enjoy Florida without a car, though of course it's obviously more convenient to do the 2-axle Turnpike shuffle if you want to explore deeper without having to rely on public transportation. It also taught me that there's way more I want to see in the state and that you'd probably need at least a lifetime to see it all. I've got some years left. Bring it on!


One of my new favorite Twitter finds is @hiddenflorida, managed by Hilda Mitrani, a blogger for Visit Florida. She focuses mainly on everything not Miami and not Disney. Check her stuff out for Florida fun off the beaten path.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ford Fiesta: Farewell

Earlier this month, Brad and I went to Los Angeles for the official U.S. unveiling of the Ford Fiesta at the LA Auto Show. Ford flew a bunch of us agents for a two-day event, which included a special concert and awards ceremony at the Hollywood Palladium.

Brad and I won Best Adventure Video for Gator Wrastlin' mission!

While at the Palladium, we happened to bump into a social media acquaintance, Jeff Turner, who shot this video:

I wrote about the LA Auto Show experience over at Miami New Times, so I'm going to take a more personal tack here. But suffice it to say, Ford's campaign was absolutely brilliant. I'm not a marketing expert and I can't predict if it's going to sell cars, but the campaign generated millions of impressions in social media networks.

And besides, it was just plain fun. I was amazed at the amount of creativity and talent shared among all the agents in the project.

Brad and I returned the car to a local Ford dealer in South Dade a day before we went to LA. It didn't dawn on me how much I would miss the car until I got back to Miami.

I was never really into cars, but now I have much more of an appreciation for the art of motor vehicles and driving. My own car, a '98 Toyota Corolla, feels like a golf cart compared to the Fiesta. There's something about the power of the engine, the steering and the manual transmission that make a whole world of difference when driving. I keep reaching for the stick shift and now that it's not there, I feel like I'm in limbo!

Driving a great car in manual transmission is like taking the lead in a tango. I felt like the car was my partner and I was guiding her every move; she responded to me beautifully. The car felt like an extension of me. It was powerful. With my Toyota, the driving experience is very passive and blah. I guess I did become very passionate about driving after all!

(Of course, I'm talking about the Ford Fiesta here, but I'm sure this is true of any quality car out there. Being a girly girl, I seriously used to think all driving experiences were the same. So not true!)

I really enjoyed being part of this project and bringing some great content here to Sex and the Beach. I had the chance to do some hyper-local storytelling that I probably would've never done: we captured Memorial Day, featuring Jimbo's and interviewing a veteran on Ocean Drive; we shot a parody of Scarface, including locations El Exquisito Restaurant, Maximo Gomez Domino Park and Elian Gonzalez's house; we geocached in South Miami, Coral Gables and Pinecrest, including the historic cemetery on Erwin Road; we helped build a house in Liberty City with Habitat for Humanity; we checked out the local graffiti scene with artist Atomic; we towed the car on a bike down Flagler street; and, finally, of course, we wrestled an alligator in Orlando.

I also got to know Brad better and work with him as part of a creative team. The Ford Fiesta may be out of our lives now, but I doubt this is the last time we're going to collaborate on some cool projects together.

The Fiesta project was also personally rewarding for me since I used to suffer from agoraphobia and had a fear of driving. It's amazing to me that I was able to conquer that condition and end up driving a car -- a stick shift no less -- all over local expressways! I even drove most of the way to Orlando and back when we went on our Gatorland mission.

When I was caught up in the agoraphobia, I never in a million years would've dreamed about driving so much and enjoying it so. But while I had the Fiesta, I would drive the car every day, even if I didn't have to go anywhere. It was a thrill to go down beautiful Old Cutler Road just for the heck of it.

I hope that I can be an example to others who are suffering from panic attacks. If I could get over it, so can you. For me, there was quite a bit of serendipity involving the Ford Fiesta project; it was no mere coincidence. Driving like this was the culmination and proof positive that you can turn your life around from such a crippling condition.

Thank you Brad and Ford -- it was a great ride!