Saturday, July 6, 2013

How My Frugality Broke the Bank

How My Frugality Broke the Bank ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

A couple weeks ago I wrote about beating the system with Cheap-Flights-R-Us. Today I hang my head in defeat. I had bought a round-trip ticket on-line. Great Falls to Phoenix. My ultimate destination was Puerto Penasco in Mexico.

Sky Harbor in Phoenix sprawls over miles of concourse. Imagine my surprise when my plane landed in this itty-bitty place, tossed me out onto the tarmac and I walked into Gateway Airport, smaller than Great Falls International, in Mesa, Arizona. I looked at my ticket. Phoenix/Mesa. Oh.

The nice lady at the information desk directed me to a good motel with free shuttle from the airport. She let me use her phone to secure a room.

The shuttle driver proved to be an encyclopedia of information. He told me that a cab from Mesa to Dos Portes Superior in Phoenix to catch the shuttle to Mexico, would be at least a hundred dollars. Nope, he didn’t know of an office in Mesa. He said my best way to get from Mesa to Phoenix would be by private driver.

The nice man volunteered to drive me for fifty dollars. "Deal," I said, shaking his hand. Was it a good deal? Well, he got me there and on time.

The Dos Portes Superior office in Phoenix, a tiny room with a few folding-chairs, quickly filled to capacity. The shuttle van was late getting started. While my command of Spanish is improving, it is mostly lacking. A white-haired gentleman took me under wing and helped me to know what was happening. Finally we boarded the van and headed south. No air conditioning. The driver gave us a choice to turn around or keep going. I voiced my vote with the other passengers—we kept going, through the southern Arizona desert, hot-spot of the nation. We passed through beautiful country including Organ-Pipe Cactus National Monument, a must-see.

At the border, just so you know when you plan your own trip, the van stops and all passengers exit with luggage, aptly named. We lugged our bags through customs into Mexico. Since I was not carrying guns they let me cross. We walked to another even tinier Dos Portes office to await the van from Penasco. It was a tiny bit late, just over an hour. There was no bathroom. But at 123 degrees, it didn’t matter.

When we got close to Puerto Penasco I texted my friend Lupe to meet me at the station. Unbeknownst to me, when I crossed the border, my cell phone no longer worked. I entered the final office, tired, hot, sweaty and scared, with no phone and no Lupe. Using Spanglish and waving arms I asked the man behind the desk to call my friend.

Now for the return trip: I had missed my flight by two days but that is a different story. At Dos Portes I bought a ticket to the Mesa office, there was one, for an extra twenty dollars. At the border, the first driver didn’t tell the second driver I was going to Mesa. So he took me to Phoenix. "Look," I said, holding my ticket in front of his face. "I paid for Mesa. I need to be at Gateway in Mesa in a half hour." After haggling, and for an extra forty dollars, the man took me to Gateway. I thanked him profusely and rushed into the airport.

There were ticket lines to Grand Forks, Billings, someplace in Idaho and Minneapolis. No Great Falls. A young woman, an angel, spotted the consternation on my face and asked if she could help. "They don’t fly to Great Falls every day." There must be a solution. "Billings?" She took me to a special counter. "Billings is boarding now. I’ll see if I can get you on," she said. I figured I could get a shuttle flight into Great Falls.

Previously I had purchased trip protection so asked if I could use that against my new ticket. "Not when you miss your flight," she said. "But look. You made a mistake that works for you. You booked your return for July, not June. (Red face.) Let’s make this work. Uh, the flight is full. Let me check cancellations." Minutes later my angel raced me through security. For another two hundred dollars, almost the entire cost of my round-trip ticket, I took the last and only seat available, due to a "no-show".

I landed in Billings, picked up my bag. There are no shuttle flights from Billings to anywhere in Montana. None.

Another angel suggested a rental car. In tears and one-hundred thirty-two dollars later not including gas, I drove a little black sports car from Billings to Great Falls International, in the dark with no map. It took two hours to get gas, turn in the rental, locate my van, gas up again. When I finally got home, eyes like pinwheels, I had exactly ten dollars to my name. The cheapest flight I ever booked had become the most expensive trip I ever took.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 4, 2013

How I Beat the Odds and Flew the Cheap Flight

How I Beat the Odds and Flew the Cheap Flight ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

My friends Richard and Marcia told me about a new airline with really cheap flights if you happened to want to go to one of their destination cities. Richard said that for the cheapest seats, they strapped you to the wings. That Richard is such a tease. But I understood that this would be a no-frills flight. Not even a tiny bag of free peanuts!

Once I figured out how to unlock the information for "flight only" on the website, bypassing all the marvelous vacation deals with hotel, rental limo and gourmet meals, I discovered that I was indeed in luck. I wanted to go to one of the Sun Cities for a short visit with a friend. Cheap-Seats-R-Us listed my city as one of their few destinations. I could make the entire round trip for less than I usually pay for gas to get out of Montana.

Living in Montana is like being stuck on fly paper. It is hard to lift off! When I lived in Seattle it cost me a fortune to fly into Great Falls, the closest airport to home. It was cheaper to fly to London. On the other hand I could fly to Las Vegas, should I want to go there, for $69.00. For the same price, and with a strong tail wind, I can fly from, say, Harlem to Turner.

But that is neither here nor there. On Cheap-Flights-R-Us, I found I could fly round trip from Great Falls to my destination city for a mere $86.30. A hot-diggity-dog deal.

But wait—what about those add-on fees, such as the Federal Excise Tax. And what is this "segment fee"? Bugs have segments. But I’m a human being. Did I count as one segment or more than one segment? Are arms and legs each a segment? What in tarnation is a PFC? And a September 11 Security Fee? I kept my booking receipt just to prove it to you. See, says so right here. To all of this, add on a Carrier Usage Charge. I guess that means I was allowed to actually board the plane and stay on it from Point A to Point B. If I wanted to choose my seat, I had to add another $30.00. If I let them choose for me, I paid nothing. That was a tough one. I like to sit with my damaged leg on the aisle so I can get out of my seat at the end of the flight. But, hey, thirty dollars is thirty dollars. I’m now up to $133.98 and at the mercy of computer-pick seating, which is like a poor-man lottery.

Now we come to the fine print—baggage fees. One is allowed to carry on a purse or wallet for no charge. However, on Cheap-Seats-R-Us, a carry-on bag costs $30.00 if you pre-pay. More if you wait until you check in. The first checked bag costs $50.00 and the next one costs $80.00, pre-paid, more at check in. This brought my $86.30 ticket to a grand total of $235.96; that is for myself and one bag, pre-paid. Get the picture?

Ha! I created the perfect solution. I was headed to sunny shores for a short couple weeks. I had to smile at how clever I was. First I put on an adequate number of sets of undergarments. Then I squeezed into my bathing suit. Over that I pulled on two pair of shorts, two short pants, one long trousers, one loose wide-legged dressy pants. With five or six blouses and shirts, I was set. I strung several necklaces around my neck and jammed a ring on each finger. I didn’t say I looked stylish but I certainly did look cheerful. I could tell because everybody grinned at me. I wore my best sandals. In my oversize purse I tucked my toothbrush and several "beach read" type books and a folded large plastic trash bag. I could hardly move my arms or legs.

I knew I’d be in trouble if I had to take off my clothes to clear Security. What a relief when I was directed through the full-body scanner. The person monitoring the scanner made me stand on the mat with my arms up while he called over several co-workers to take a look. Finally he waved me through with a friendly smile. When I boarded the airplane, all I had to do was squeeze into the seat, extend the seatbelt to the longest length and tug it to fasten it.

When I got off the plane I waddled down the concourse to the nearest bathroom. I quickly stripped down to one set of clothing and stowed the rest of my garments in the plastic garbage bag. Voila. I walked out of the terminal carrying my plastic luggage and a savings of $102.00.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

June 13, 2013

My kaleidoscopic variegated shifting scenes of life

My kaleidoscopic variegated shifting scenes of life
I don’t understand the concept of boredom. As a child my family made sure that if I even looked bored, I got handed a do-list. I distinctly remember a time, when I was single-not-by-choice and raising my kids, when I prayed daily, please, let me experience boring. While I wasn’t exactly operating on the crisis of the moment, every day was hand-to-mouth and I certainly had tapped into the fast moving physics of cause/effect. My requests for boring were denied. I got "different" instead. I never got to know boredom.

I remember one long-ago day when my oldest child complained, "I’m bored." With a gleam in my eye, I found her a dozen ways to avoid boredom and she never complained again. That tactic worked with my youngest too. To my credit, I didn’t hand them just a list of jobs but mingled the chores with fun things to do.

Mother Nature seems to work under a similar principle that keeps each day full and different from the previous. One rainy day we in Harlem were under flood advisory, our water and sewer usage restricted. Our dated waste-water system could not handle the run-off, not with every sump pump in town adding to the flow. But the next day the sun was shining and all was well. Then the following day, after two more inches of rain, we hovered anxiously on the banks of the Milk River, watching the roiling waters rise. Life as usual on the High Line. Certainly not boring.

It had never occurred to me that my yard work might keep my friends and neighbors entertained. In an effort to avoid watering and mowing and watering and mowing the lawn, ad infinitum, a few years ago I had 15 yards of bark chips delivered to my driveway and spread them over my seeming five-hundred acres of grass. That mountain of chips was the talk of the town, but once spread, the bark chips eliminated the grass and most of the weeds. I planted fruit trees and flowering shrubs and made my yard beautiful.

In my process of downsizing my life (Phase Two), it occurred to me that if I put my house on the market, I might do well to re-install a lawn in front, even if that means water, mow, water, ad infinitum, or until the house sells, whichever comes first. So I hired a man to rake up all the bark chips and move them to the back yard, where the chips look perfectly wonderful in and around the fruit trees, which needed new chips this year anyway.

The other day my cousin Shirley said to me, "Everybody in town is asking me, ‘What is Sondra doing with her yard?’" Of course, nobody asked me. In our small town way, everybody wants to know but nobody wants to be nosey. I don’t mind. You may knock on my door any time to ask me what I am doing. My life is mundane, but it fascinates me and I’ll share it with you. Soon a truck and crew will show up with sod and I will have instant lawn. I could set up chairs and charge admission, serve lemonade.

Just this morning at 6:30 coffee with the boys at the City Shop, Chuck asked me if I had a real estate sale sign in my front yard. "No," I answered with lifted brow and a questioning look. I hadn’t told anybody that I had just signed papers the day before. "Oh, I heard you did." Mis-information travels faster than the speed of rumor in this small town.

I had agonized for months over selling my house. House and yard get larger and more demanding every year. One day soon the realtor will show up and pound a "For Sale" sign in my front yard, the yard with instant grass.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep working, trying to take each day one step at a time. I’m not the most patient person on the planet. I want my life mapped out. Nobody wants to know what tomorrow will bring more than I. But since life never has worked that way for me, I have learned not to push the river. That doesn’t mean I don’t jump in from time to time and try to divert the flow into a different channel, one I think looks more promising. A couple times I’ve woken in the dark night screaming at myself, "What do you think you are doing!" Eventually I come to my senses and allow the river to flow without my help. Tomorrow will be what it will be, neither better nor worse than today, but it will be different, not boring.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

June 6, 2013