Roller Derby, Travel

Three important travel lessons I learned from my weekend in Dallas

I recently traveled from my home in Denver to Dallas for a short video project. My client was a small magazine with a tiny part-time staff.  Given the market they’re in, they have to operate frugally, and so at every turn we tried to plan for the least expensive option. That backfired in a couple ways.

Here are the big lessons:

1. Don’t fly Frontier

I almost always fly Southwest for both business and pleasure, because they’ve always treated me well. But Southwest doesn’t offer any direct flights from Denver to either of the Dallas airports. So, my client found a great deal on Orbitz.com for Frontier. I booked that, and the round trip cost was $238.00 (taxes and fees included). Seems pretty reasonable, eh?

Well, of course there’s the bag fees to tack onto that. If you buy your ticket anywhere except FlyFrontier.com, they charge $25 for your first checked bag and $30 for the second. On Southwest, both bags are free, which is one of the reasons I like Southwest.

What surprised me, though, is that as I was checking in, I learned that if you buy from anywhere but FlyFrontier.com, you also have to pay $50 for a carry-on! Now keep in mind I was doing a video shoot, which means I’ve got a camera bag and tripod in addition to a suitcase for clothes, toiletries, etc. So I check my camera bag and my suitcase, and then carry the tripod on. With these bags, we’re now up to $105 in bag fees — EACH WAY! In other words, my roundtrip ticket of $238.00 went up by $210.00 for my luggage. $448.00 doesn’t sound so cheap anymore, does it?

So, my first lesson is that if you have to fly Frontier, only book your flight through FlyFrontier.com. Or avoid Frontier altogether.

(For comparison, if I had done a non-direct flight on Southwest, I would’ve paid somewhere between $160 and $330 total, including all my bags. And I won’t even go into my diatribe about Frontier charging $2 for a soft drink that’s free on Southwest.)

2. Allocate lots of extra time if you’re renting a car

The Dallas Fort Worth airport is designed such that there is a separate car rental center that serves all car rental agencies. So after you get your bag you stand in line to wait for the next bus. I don’t know if it’s this way all the time, but when I arrived Friday night, there was a long line of people. It took us about 20 minutes to cram everyone onto the rental car bus (at 4 different stops), and then another 25 minutes (that is not an exaggeration) for the bus to drive to the car rental center.

This bus travels at really low speed (good, given how many people were standing) and some Texan in his infinite wisdom put the car rental center miles from the airport. In fact, where you pick up your car is so far away from the rest of the airport that if you drive back to the terminal to pick up another arriving passenger (as I did), you have to take a toll road to do so. That’s how far away the rental center is. One guy on the bus, about 20 minutes into the ride, yelled to the driver, “Can you just drop me off at my hotel?”

Having never flown into Dallas, I had the impression that the DFW airport was supposed to be one of the gems in the US airport network. But now I know what a shithole it really is. As much as we in Denver complain about the airport being so far from the city, at least it was designed well from a traffic flow perspective. Maybe they learned from the terrible mistakes the designers of DFW made 15 years earlier.

So the next lesson comes from the car rental shuttle bus driver herself: When you return to the DFW airport, plan an extra hour to deal with your rental car. The same goes for arrivals. Don’t think that you can get your bags, get a rental car in 15 minutes, and be on your way.

3. Be careful who you rent your car from

So my flight was almost an hour late. That’s not ideal, but there’s nothing I can do about it. The problem was weather, supposedly. That should be no big deal. But after finally landing and getting my bags and taking the rental car shuttle to the rental center, it was after midnight. Can you guess where this story is going?

In our efforts to save money, I reserved a car from Advantage. When I arrived at the rental center, I and several other unhappy renters discovered that the Advantage desk closed at midnight. I called the phone number listed on the reservation, and there was no answer. No customer service agent, no recording saying what to do if you have a late arrival, not even a message of “sorry we’re closed”, just ring ring ring ring…

My second choice would have been Enterprise, since I’ve always had good service from them. But their desk was closed, too. In fact, about half the car rental companies close at midnight, which meant huge lines at all the rest. I chose the rental agency that had the cheapest sounding name, “E-Z Rent-A-Car.” They had two cars left, fortunately, and I got a small Chevy SUV for what was a good price for an SUV (less than many rental agencies charge for a standard car) but more than for the original econobox I reserved from Advantage.

When visiting DFW and renting a car, if your flight might possibly arrive after midnight, check in advance that your rental company stays open past midnight.

All in all, I guess the trip was a good reminder that trying to cut costs to the bone can backfire. If and when I travel to Dallas again, I’ll be doing several things differently.