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

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