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Here Are Some of Our Personal Gripes

Gripes. We all have things to gripe about when we travel. Here are some of the things that have irritated us. We have traveled a lot and have always extolled the use of credit cards in foreign countries as an alternative to carrying cash or bringing along travelers' checks. So, it was very disturbing to find out the usurious interest rates now being charged by US credit card companies whenever you purchase something in a foreign currency. Every foreign currency transaction is charged a 1% transaction fee by the international cards, Visa and MasterCard. Then, on top of that, your specific card issuer will probably charge another 2%. So, if you pay $1,000 for hotels, food, or whatever during your travels, the card companies will charge you another $30 for the use of the credit card. The 1% fee can be defended for the currency conversion and is still a better deal to get local currency than any other alternative. However, the other 2% is outrageous because they are already working in $US. From what we can surmise, if you use your bank debit card, you will pay little more than 1%, so our recommendation would be to never use your credit card but rather take out the cash you need as you go. Outside of the airfare, the biggest expenses of a trip are probably the hotel bills and car rental fees. These you will tend to pay as you go and nearly always with a credit card. Do whatever you have to to book and pay for these in the US. Virtually any transaction made outside of the US will be in the local currency and you will pay these fees.

One of my greatest aggravations in traveling is over a very small thing. The print on the little bottles of shampoo in the hotels to be exact. When I go in to take a shower, I don't wear my glasses. And I am invariably presented with at least two small bottles, one of which is the shampoo. The other is the conditioner and there may be a bottle for body soap or whatever. But I can't tell which is which because the print is so small. So I always have to go back out and get my glasses so I can read the names on the bottles. Is it so difficult to make the print big enough so that the over-fifty set can read them without glasses?

When you fly a non-US carrier, you always have young and eager flight attendants. By contrast, when you fly a U.S. carrier, particularly in business or first class, you're always flying with grandma. These attendants have, by and large, been doing this job for at least 20 to 30 years. The problem is that, with few exceptions, everything they do is perfunctory. As the old saying goes, these people have had one year's experience 30 times over. The message they send is clear. It's, 'get in your seat,' 'What do you want to drink?' 'What do you want to eat?' 'Now, let's everybody shut up and go to sleep so we can relax.' Sure there are exceptions, but very few. They all have the attitude of an old waitress at a coffee shop. They simply burnt out many years ago.

This situation exists because the airlines have caved into the attendants over the years regarding increases in salary making it economically viable to stay on these jobs forever. Had the salaries for these jobs remained where they were originally, at least relatively, these people would have moved on many years ago. I don't blame them for staying. I blame the airlines for letting it get this way. Ironically, Americans also tend to fly American carriers. By contrast, we've had great experiences on many foreign carriers. Indeed, the most highly rated airlines are invariably foreign carriers. Don't hesitate to take them.

Then came the experiences we had on our last RTW trip. We decided to do the trip first class because of the long distances involved. We started with Lufthansa flight 711 from Tokyo to Frankfurt, then Lufthansa flight 452 from Munich to Los Angeles, and United for the last two legs going from Los Angeles to Kona, Hawaii on flight 51 and finally from Honolulu back to Tokyo on flight 827. Because of all of the miles Katherine was flying in Asia, she was frequently able to upgrade to first class and loves it. So we had high expectations of a delightful experience for the 30 or so hours we'd be in the air.

The first two legs were pretty much as expected with delightful service. Then we came to United in Los Angeles. We showed up at the Los Angeles first-class check-in to be met by a fairly surly agent. Not just any agent, mind you, but a union steward according to his badge. Capping his general lack of civility, he started to put on the baggage tags but without the first class priority handling tags. When my wife requested that he put these on he defended himself by saying he was just trying to get us on our way quickly. And then, clearly indignant over being called on this, he retrieved these from a drawer to put on our luggage. My wife had noted that he hadn't put these tags on the previous passenger's luggage either. Her experience has suggested that these tags can make a big difference in getting your luggage out earlier.

The food. The personal touches. It's all just part of those things you add up at the end of the trip when you decide if the experience was good or bad. Every interface with United on this leg was a bad experience. Indeed, my wife was so upset with this leg of the trip that the funk it put her in damn near ruined an otherwise memorable trip. Unfortunately, United seems to have a lock on getting to Kona from the states.

It doesn't seem as though it would be difficult to offer acceptably good service to the flying public. I don't think that most people spend a lot of time planning flights depending on what type of airplane they will fly in and everybody uses a particular service for reservations. If you're not using a lounge, then you sit in a terminal and there's not much that differentiates one terminal waiting room from another. And flying economy is pretty bad no matter what airline you fly. So, the public's opinion of an airline is pretty much formed in only one of three basic ways; the check-in experience, in the lounges, and by the in-flight service.

It would take so little effort and so little money to change a passenger's opinion from a negative to a positive experience. If only they cared about their customers. In an airline with billions in costs, just how much more would it cost to upgrade the lounges, give personality classes to the employees interfacing with the public on the ground, and provide attentive service and decent seating on board to people willing to pay for it? Our experience reflects more than just some bad service. It reflects a lousy attitude by the company in general.