Trouble on the Tundra

Or why I will never use a travel agent again.

I’m in Alaska right now, writing this from the comfort of a “junior suite” cabin on Radiance of the Seas. Outside my window, ten stories below me, is the Pacific Ocean, stretching as far as the eye can see. I’m sitting in a comfy chair with my feet on an ottoman and my little old PowerBook on my lap. Van Morrison is playing from my iPod through my iFusion’s speakers. Mike is reading on the sofa. Life is good.

Finally.

The past six days have been a mixture of hell, heaven, and earth, with more hell than anything else. Don’t believe me? Here’s an outline of what we’ve been through.

Day 1: Sunday

  • Our flight out of Phoenix was delayed 2-1/2 hours. That wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the fact that it was a 6:30 AM flight and we’d woke up at 3:30 AM to catch it. We could have slept in.
  • When our flight finally arrived in Seattle, we were told that we have to switch planes. (Our flight was supposed to be direct, with just that one stop.) They’d sent another plane to Anchorage on time and we missed it. At first, it was unclear whether they could put us on another flight. They finally handed over boarding passes for a flight to Anchorage, just as they’re making their final boarding call. Mike and I couldn’t sit together on the overbooked flight. At least I got a window seat.
  • Although we arrived in Anchorage, our three checked pieces of luggage did not. (We would not see our luggage (or the clean clothes and toiletries they contained) until the next day.)

I realize that I cannot blame my travel agent for Alaska Air’s shortcomings. But I will think twice before flying on Alaska Air again.

Day 2: Monday

In AnchorageWe spent the day with Francis and Barbara, our friends in Anchorage. We were staying at their house. After picking up our luggage at the airport and showering, we had a very pleasant day that included a trip to Whittier and some time spent in and around Anchorage.

No travel agent or airline involved; no problems. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Day 3: Tuesday

  • Alaska RailroadOn arrival at the Alaska Railroad terminal, we were unable to get a boarding pass with seat assignments for the train. Turns out, the train car we were supposed to ride in was overbooked. They put us and two other couples on an empty train car, warning us that we may have to move when they pick up passengers at Talkeetna. It was actually quite pleasant having this whole dome car to ourselves, although we didn’t get regular service from the staff because they expected that car to be empty.
  • Although we paid for an upgraded seat on the train with the understanding that we’d get service similar to an airline’s First Class service, we’re still required to pay for drinks and the food-like substances they served downstairs for breakfast and lunch. Nothing is cheap; nothing is good.
  • On arrival in Talkeetna, there were seven more passengers than seats in the car. The staff told us we may have to move. We (and the couple immediately behind us) refused. They relocated all 7 of the extra passengers to another car on the train.
  • On arrival at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, we were told that our room had two beds rather than the king sized bed we requested. The travel agent had not passed on any room preference. We were given a key to our room and told that if a room with a King bed became available, they’d let us know. We should call them at 7 PM. I told them that I seriously doubted whether they’d move us. (Of course, they didn’t.)
  • We wound our way through the maze of two-story motel-like structures on the Princess property and found our room. It was a tiny, cramped, poorly-ventilated room that reminded me of a Motel 6 room I stayed at once while driving cross-country. The two full-sized beds (not even queens!) were crammed in so tightly that it was impossible to walk around one of them and the table and chairs included in the room were right up against the side of the other one. The television got about a dozen channels and four of them were more static than picture.

Please note the description on our travel agent-provided Itinerary:

The Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, situated high above the Nenana River, is the premium riverside accommodation in the area. Enjoy a soak in the outdoor hot tubs. There is a restaurant and lounge in the hotel and many others close by.

The Denali Princess is on a bluff overlooking the river, but very few of its rooms have any kind of view whatsoever. Ours looked out over what appeared to be a pumping station. There was a wooden porch that ran the length of the building, and when we opened our curtains, anyone walking by could look right in at us, so the curtains stayed closed. There was also a gravel walkway and we could hear people crunching by on the gravel in the mornings and evenings. The place was absolutely packed with Princess Cruise passengers, most of whom where pushing 70. The hot tubs — there were 3 of them — were overflowing (literally) with overweight midwesterners. The only redeeming feature of the hotel was the King Salmon restaurant, which served decent meals at an expectedly high price. Our first night waitress was very nice — the first person we’d met in three days who actually seemed to care about service. But how they could call the place a “wilderness lodge” is beyond me. It’s false advertising, plain and simple.

Side story here. The next evening, while coming back from dinner at the Denali Grand’s restaurant in a shuttle bus, another Princess guest on the shuttle claimed that he liked his room at the Princess. He added: “But you need Fort Knox in your back pocket to eat at the restaurant there.” Obviously, this is the kind of person Princess is serving: people on package tours, who are more concerned with price than quality.

You can bet I’ll never stay on another Princess property or take a Princess cruise.

Day 4: Wednesday

In Denali NPWe spent the day taking the shuttle bus deep into Denali National Park and doing some hiking around the park. It was a pleasant day out. More in another blog entry.

Day 5: Thursday

Following the instructions provided by the Princess people, we tagged our luggage for the return trip to Anchorage on the train and left the three bags in front of our room. Everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing. But when we arrived at Anchorage at 8:30 PM, only two of our bags were at baggage claim. One of our bags had been lost.

The head of baggage claim for the Alaska Railroad and Mike each spoke to people at the Denali Princess. They all said that it was not their problem. They even tried to insinuate that they’d never handled any of our bags because they didn’t have a record of the tags on them. They couldn’t satisfactorily explain how two bags they’d obviously handled had shown up in Anchorage. Thank heaven Mike took care of this. I would have completely wigged out. But he kept working on them about it, even going so far as to take a cab to a hotel where it might have been delivered with other Princess guest luggage.

Of course, the bag was mine. It contained, among other things, my eyeglasses and spare contact lenses; all cables and chargers for my cameras, cell phone, and computer; the manual for my new camera; and a few pieces of clothing I rather liked. We’d moved all our dirty clothes to Mike’s bag. We still had the big bag we’d packed with the cruise clothes, which we’d hoped to check at the train station but wound up lugging around with us.

We checked into a suites hotel near the train station and I did the laundry while Mike tried desperately to track down my bag. Of course, the hotel didn’t have quarters, which I needed for the coin-op washer and dryer, so I had to walk to the Hilton a block away in my pajama pants to get change. (Thank heaven for today’s fashions — no one seemed to notice my attire.) That’s also where I managed to spend $9.50 for two small cups of ice cream. (Got another two quarters in change, at least.)

By midnight, the laundry was done and Mike was back with $100 in cash from Princess to start replacing items. But my bag remained MIA. Or should I say MBP (mishandled by Princess)?

Day 6: Friday

We headed over to the train station where we got the final knife in the back by our travel agent: our reservations for the train were for August 6 (8/6/07) rather than June 8 (6/8/07). (And no, we didn’t use a European travel agent.) The train was completely full and there were no seats available for us.

At this point, I broke down. I’d simply reached my limit. Alaska obviously hated us and was doing everything it could to make us hate it. Or, more likely, our travel agent was completely inept and this was just more proof.

Train to SewardThe folks at the Alaska Railroad took pity on us. They already knew about our missing bag. So they gave us a boarding pass that put us in one of the domed cars and told us to take any seat up top. Other people would have to take turns going up there, but we could stay up there for the entire trip. That was nice — our seats at the front of the car looked up the length of the train to the domed car a few cars up — but the seats weren’t very comfortable. It was a reasonable tradeoff, however, and I thank Alaska Railroad for offering it to us and, thus, saving the day.

At noon, in Seward, Mike started calling Princess again. Good news: They’d found my bag at their Denali property. It had never left the place. Now the challenge was to get the bag to Seward — about 300 miles away by car — before our ship departed at 9 PM.

We boarded the ship at 4 PM. Everything there was as we expected — at least the travel agent hadn’t screwed that up.

And when we returned from dinner at 10:30 PM, my missing bag was in the cabin, waiting to be unpacked.

Why I Blame the Travel Agent

Although I can’t blame the travel agent for the Alaska Air problems, I can blame her for reservation problems and booking us in a hotel that obviously wasn’t up to our standards. We communicated, from the start, that we wanted a “deluxe” vacation and she should have been clued in by the amount of money that we were willing to spend that cost wasn’t a major concern.

The round trip from Anchorage to Denali on the upgraded rail car and two nights at the Denali Princess had cost us a whopping $1500. For three days and two nights that included only transportation and lodging! We’d expected first class train service and we got fancy coach. We’d expected luxury accommodations and got Motel 6 quality. We feel ripped off. And the travel agent is responsible for selling us this bill of good.

People use travel agents to make things easier for them. We used a travel agent because we simply didn’t have time to do the research we needed to arrange our trip. We figured that a travel agent would know the options — or be able to get information about the options — because that’s what she does for a living. It’s her job.

But we were wrong. She obviously doesn’t know how to do her job responsibly or reliably.

If people less capable of dealing with problems while traveling had booked a trip like ours and it had as many screw-ups as we suffered through, those people would have been completely lost. As it was, I was at the end of my rope. On Friday, when it didn’t seem as if we’d get to Seward on the train, I was ready to go home. Go home! In the middle of my vacation!

What kind of a vacation is that?

Things are Good Now

Hubbard Glacier from our CabinBut things are good now. We’re sailing down the coast of Alaska. Today, we got a pretty close look at a glacier, dodging small icebergs along the way. The captain even turned the ship to put the glacier on our side, so we could watch it from our balcony for a short while. I got lots of photos with my new camera, then spent some time reading through its book, learning more about how it works.

I’ll write more about the highlights of the trip when I find time. Now its time to dress for dinner. It’s formal night and we still need to hit the martini bar.

Let’s hope I don’t have anything more to whine and complain about.

2 thoughts on “Trouble on the Tundra

  1. Sounds exceedingly sucky. I’d actually followed your missing bag saga via Twitter and felt really sorry for you – hadn’t appreciated all of the other nonsense you’ve had to go through.

    Hope the rest of the trip goes much better. Sounds pretty amazing to be looking at glaciers.

  2. The baggage problems were just the tip of the iceberg up here in Alaska (no pun intended). Everything is very good now that we’re on the ship. The glacier by ship was amazing, but yesterday we actually landed on two of them by helicopter. Incredible. I’ll write up my experiences and share photos shortly. Got a great connection via Treo here in Skagway (of all places).

What do you think?