When is a bargain not a bargain?
Probably when it is a low-priced, round-trip, Southwest Airlines ticket from Belize to Houston.
We’ve all seen them since Southwest began flying into Belize a year ago. I was among the cheerleaders since Southwest’s aggressive pricing (initially, at least) often forces the big carriers to drop prices. Win-win!
My wife, Rose, recently snagged a too-good-to-be-true ticket to Houston. She has a son in Oklahoma whom she hadn’t seen since we moved to Belize nearly three years ago. She also has a daughter in Arizona and, not coincidentally, a friend had organized a weeklong yoga retreat in Sedona for early October.
So she jumped on the Southwest sale. And offered to get me one, too.
“This would be a great time to visit your sons and grandson,” she observed.
My sons live in a nearly straight line between Reno and San Francisco. How hard could it be? Start at one end or the other. At the end of two weeks, fly back to Houston for the return leg to Belize.
Ah, if only it were that simple.
Southwest’s Belize flight lands in Houston at 8 p.m. For Rose, that worked out OK. After clearing customs, she had just enough time to catch her flight to Oklahoma.
Me? Not so much. After 8 p.m., the pickings to Reno, San Francisco or Oakland are slim to none. So I had to stay overnight near Hobby Houston Airport and catch a plane the next morning.
Add the cost of the hotel to my bargain ticket and all that bargain euphoria is wiped out. All those hotels within two miles of the Hobby Airport? They must love Southwest.
For the first time in my life, I envied Texans — at least those who could drive to Houston Hobby and pick up a cheap flight to Belize.
I ended up flying American Airlines to Reno the next morning, simply because it offered the best time and a not-so-bad price. And it flew out of Hobby. Convenient.
So I woke refreshed the next morning and looked at the time. I had less than an hour to make my flight. I showered, shaved, dressed and packed in less than 10 minutes and was in the lobby in time to catch the 6 a.m. shuttle.
But damn, there were a lot of people in the lobby.
Apparently the every-half-hour shuttle hadn’t been seen or heard from in more than an hour.
One very nervous flight crew was more than an hour late for check-in at the airport, and the captain in this quartet was royally stewed. He was chewing out every hotel employee within earshot and gave it good to the driver when he showed up 10 minutes later.
The crew captain pulled out his iPhone and was popping pictures of the drive, the dashboard, the license plate. Apparently heads would roll, if he had his way. The rest of the crew nervously fidgeted on the brief sprint to the airport.
Of course, I was no less nervous. Until I got to the AA check-in counter. The woman behind the counter have the calming voice of an angel.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Hawkins, you’ll make your flight.”
She checked in my main carry-on bag ($25) and gave me a TSA pre-checked boarding pass. She explained how to find the TSA “express lane” — keep your shoes on and your computer in the bag and zip past the smiling Homeland Security agents. I’m now a big fan of pre-check.
I was the last to board, but she was right. I made it.
In fact, I was so relieved to make the flight that I didn’t even notice until walking off the plane in Reno that this was the same stressed-out crew from the hotel shuttle.
So happy I didn’t notice when boarding . . .
One attendant smiled when I said “Looks like we all made our flight.”
“We just keep on keeping on, don’t we!” she responded.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Let’s pause here for an earthbound travel tip: I’d rented a car from Enterprise, a firm I’ve often used in the past. My computer data badly needed updating and the clerk and I cheerfully plowed through it, as the line behind me grew.
“OK, we’re all set,” she finally said. “Credit card?”
I handed her my debit card. I’m a deeply committed pay-as-you-go apostle since moving to Belize. No debt, no credit cards.
That didn’t fly with the car rental agency.
No credit card, no car.
I found a rental agency that did accept a debit card, immediately wiping out the bargain price I’d scored with Enterprise.
Nice car though. Sporty. Clean. Fuel efficient.
And the ignition was . . . a button. I’d heard about these things. The car was running when I picked it up and drove straight to my favorite Reno coffee shop on the banks of the Truckee River.
As I turned the car off — that was easy — the thought occurred to me: How do you turn it back on? I hadn’t a clue and no amount of pressing the start button helped.
But this gave me the opportunity to use my new “burner phone” which I’d just acquired from a vending machine at the airport ($50 with 10 minutes of free time).
“Put one foot on the brake as you push the button,” the agent said patiently.
“Oh. Thank you,” I replied. “That works.”
“Yes, sir. It does. Remember to keep the key fob with you when leaving the car.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
OK, back to our story . . .
Two weeks later, on a rainy Sunday night, I was headed to San Francisco International in a Lyft car (half the price of a taxi, about the same as the BART train but in a 10th of the time) for a 9:30 p.m. flight to Las Vegas.
Why Las Vegas?
Because no flight from San Francisco or Oakland would get me to Houston in time for the 2 p.m. Monday flight to Belize.
Besides, the Southwest flight to Las Vegas was only $39.
I didn’t even mind so much when it took off at 12:30 a.m. — the famous Southwest Domino Effect — a late flight in one city backs up their planes all over the country.
I had planned to meet up with my youngest brother, who lives outside Las Vegas but the nearly 2 a.m. arrival nixed that reunion.
Plan B was sleeping in the airport until my 650 a.m. flight to Houston.
I wasn’t alone. Sleeping gamblers and their luggage were sprawled out all over the airport. Did I look as pathetic as they did?
The difference I guess is that I hadn’t dropped a dime gambling. I was tempted but the modern slot machines were as intimidating as a push-button start automobile. I couldn’t figure where to drop in my nickel.
So I curled up in a chair and slept for a couple of hours.
Back in Houston I had loads of time.
Good thing too.
The Southwest agent was reluctant to give me a boarding pass.
“Do you own property in Belize she asked?”
“A citizen? A resident?”
“No. And no. I live there. What’s this all about?”
“I’ll be right back, sir.”
She disappeared for almost 20 minutes. It dawned on me that she was looking at my ticket as a one-way to Belize, which raises flags, I guess.
I grabbed a Southwest supervisor and explained what I saw as the problem. This is the return leg of a round-trip ticket I calmly explained (I still had two hours to make my flight.)
Meanwhile, I texted Rose, who was flying in from Phoenix with a very narrow window to make our flight: Make sure they understand this is your RETURN trip.
My situation was eventually sorted out and my two bags were checked through — bags do fly free! They even gave me TSA pre-check status again!
Before I knew it, I was ordering a Chik-Fil-A sandwich, just because I was in Texas and it would be so goddamned politically incorrect. And I’d never eaten a Chik-Fil-A anything before.
“You want your pakal (pay-kal) with that?” asked the clerk.
‘Yes, sir, your pakal?”
I looked lost. Push-button starters, high tech slot machines and now …. pakals.
A supervisor came over. “It’s a pickle,” she said lightly. “She’s from Loos-i-ana and even I have a hard time understanding her sometimes.”
“Pakal,” I nodded. “Yes! Pakal! Love your accent.”
I’d barely gotten through the chicken sandwich and pakal when Rose texted me. “I might not make it. Southwest wouldn’t check my bags through to Belize. I have to pick them up, then re-check in at the counter.”
Much later, as the flight was being boarded Rose texted me that they weren’t going to let her through. She was five minutes late.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she texted. “They’re re-booking my flight.”
My bags were already aboard. I was about to board. We didn’t know what else to do.
“You’ll be OK?” I asked glumly, then sent her the name of the airport hotel I stayed in two weeks ago. “Not great but clean and close by.”
As I was walking down the gangway, the final boarding agent came running after me. “Robert! Robert!” he called out, “we have a problem with your boarding pass. Come with me.”
“Eh? Now what?”
“It seems that you are booked to fly out tomorrow.”
And so it seemed.
While one agent was re-booking Rose’s ticket, she also re-booked mine, since we were sharing the same tracking number. I was 30 feet from getting on that plane.
In the departure lounge, they gave me a choice. “We can rebook you on this flight or we can take your bags off it and you can go tomorrow with you wife.”
“You can do that? Take my bags off?”
“Then do it.” Besides, I was holding a bag with two large Greek salads that were supposed to be our in-flight dinner. Now they would be our in-hotel lunch.
So, that’s how I spent a second relaxing night in Texas.
We walked to a nearby Vietnamese shopping plaza and had hearty bowls of Pho soup, strolled through a massive oriental supermarket, grabbed a delicious Vietnamese dessert to-go from a third store. In the morning, Rose went back for a Vietnamese foot massage.
Back at the airport the next day, very early, we faced the same scrutiny about one-way tickets to Belize. And, somehow, I’d picked up two phantom bags which added $175 to the cost of my ticket. It took five dedicated staffers (one in some remote computerland) to remove the bags.
And again, I got TSA pre-clearance.
Rose didn’t. Filled with survivor’s remorse, I waited patiently on the other side of Homeland Security for her. For what seemed like hours.
The rest of the trip was pretty easy. Except that we forgot to alert Tropic air that our flight to Ambergris Caye had been delayed by a day. No problem. They put us in the que and we were on the island in no time, my bags trailing by only 20 minutes and one flight.
I haven’t added up the cost of two hotels, meals and lost time but I’d say those bargain tickets from Belize cost us about four times their face value.
My lesson in all this, look before you leap — or fly Southwest. Make sure there are realistic connections to where you need to go. And also, check out the other carriers that fly out of Belize. They might indeed have a better way.