Monday, August 25, 2008

United’s Downhill Slide

An old acquaintance from our days in the Colorado ski industry, Claire Walter, posed an interesting comment on her Travel Babel blog. On her post, titled Help Me Rediscover the Joy of Travel, she asks: “Have my posts become too whiny -- or has travel simply become a chore rather than a joy?”

Sometimes, we feel we’re in the same boat. Are our posts too cynical? Does stating over and over again how moronic the TSA is help us (or others) be better and happier travelers?

It’s really not a simple question. The world today, and especially America, seems full of pompous and arrogant politicians, agencies, businesses, employees, and, yes, even customers. It’s a lot more than just travel. Store clerks are surly, drivers are insane, and service businesses are cold-hearted. Of course, there are exceptions, and those people and businesses can brighten our days.

But overall, we’re a nation of whiners who are seemingly only looking out for ourselves. Maybe we need another long trip somewhere uncivilized to clear the mind. With that in mind, we present our last diatribe against the travel industry for at least a month. We are taking most of September off, albeit not to an uncivilized destination. So without further ado:

United’s Downhill Slide

The travel blog-o-sphere is awash in words about United’s recently announced changes regarding in-flight meals and other “Changes Provid[ing] Value.” For many years now, United has been our preferred domestic airlines as well as having our favorite frequent flyer program.

Yet we haven’t flown United since the new slash-and-burn mentality appeared a few months ago. We are on several United flights (both domestic and international) over the next few weeks, and it will be interesting to see how service is, even though the international changes aren’t scheduled to take effect until Oct. 1. We booked those flights way too far in advance, and have already suffered through seemingly dozens of phone calls every time United changed a flight time or aircraft or had another tantrum.

To pour salt into the wounds, United is now offering 10 percent off international tickets by purchasing with a Visa card. It galls us that they claim they’re losing so much money that they have to charge us for snacks, yet they can forgo 10 percent revenue with this promotion. Even if this is a totally Visa-sponsored promo, it just sends the wrong message.

So now we’re trying to decide if it’s best to burn our United frequent flyer miles in the near future, before United sinks so deep into the mud that it simply disappears. We’ve already begun to put any domestic-airline flying miles into international carriers’ programs (such as bmi). When that’s not feasible, we’re accruing domestic flying miles into Alaska’s program (yet even Alaska is devaluing their mileage program, as is Frontier). Finally, this only reinforces our conviction that non-flight rewards (credit-card spending, mostly) are better as cash-back rewards or points in hotel or other programs rather than as airline miles.