Last week I revealed the embarrassing but edifying conclusion to my Case of the Phony Phone Calls: On a stay in Los Angeles, I had stupidly left my Eudora e-mail program open and my computer connected to my hotel phone. While I went out to dinner for many hours, the e-mail program kept assiduously, automatically searching for new e-mail every five minutes, thus occasioning a gargantuan, Guinness-worthy list of local phone charges on my room bill.
The happy ending was that the hotel took pity on me and waived the charges for all the calls made while I was out of the room -- more than 70 $1-service-charge calls in all!
At the end of my column, I invited readers to share their own stupid traveler tricks -- and more than 50 of you responded. Thank you, thank you -- I no longer feel alone!
So this week I am going to share the best (or the worst, depending on your point of view) of these letters.
But to begin, I should -- as a number of readers pointed out -- name the hotel that generously and graciously waived my phone charges: It was Le Meridien Beverly Hills, and if you happen to stay there, please give the good people at the front desk my regards.
Speaking of the good people at the front desk, one reader e-mailed me a very good question:
"Did you tip the lady at the desk? You know, the one who actually got you off the hook for all the phone calls? Forgot her, didn't you? Profuse thanks are nice, but she's not making much more than the bellboy in salary, you know."
I'm sorry to say I didn't tip her anything -- does anyone ever tip front desk clerks? It never occurred to me. Do front desk people really make about the same as bellboys? Would it have been appropriate to tip her in this case?
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Another reader sent a question-provoking note of another kind:
"Not wishing to insult you, but I think it's a very silly thing to leave a $3,000 laptop in a hotel room while you go out for a meal -- even if the maid looks trustworthy, her son may be a drug addict."
When I'm staying in a hotel and working on my laptop, I always leave it out on my desk, and once in a while I do have second thoughts about this. After all, I always take pains to put my wallet out of sight, yet I leave my laptop -- which is worth a lot more than my wallet -- in the open on my desk, as if with a little "Help yourself" sign on it. Is this stupid? Do you always religiously tuck your laptop away somewhere safe? Where? It won't fit in the in-room safe. Do you lock it in your luggage? Stuff it at the bottom of your dirty-laundry bag?
A number of readers sent me tales of small-time silliness that helped me feel better about my own phone faux pas, especially the first one below:
"I returned home from a trip to New Orleans. Nothing untoward happened. In the middle of the next month, I got a phone bill for several hundred dollars; astonished, I started to review: all these calls to New Orleans, all after I had returned home.
"What happened? I had forgotten to reconfigure my e-mail account to my local number; so every time I called for my e-mail, I called New Orleans.
"In my defense, I didn't realize that you had to reconfigure the account in two places, I had done only one. I paid the bill."
One reader described a trap even I haven't fallen into:
"Once when staying at the San Francisco Fairmont for a two-week period, I made the poor decision to send my clothes out to be cleaned using the hotel's laundry service. This included T-shirts, socks, undergarments, etc. Unfortunately, I neglected to pay attention to the cost of letting the hotel clean these items until they were returned the next day.
"When the bill arrived, I had spent over $100 on less than a week's worth of cleaning. I had no dry cleaning -- it was all laundry. They actually did a great job (my boxers were ironed!) but I was floored by the cost."
Here's an embarrassing bit of foolishness I too have fallen prey to, though not to this extent:
"A few weeks ago, after a long day of international travel, I checked into a hotel, received my electronic key card and went up to my room very excited about the prospect of going to sleep. I put in the key card and got a green light, but the door wouldn't open. I tried again -- same result. I tried reversing the card -- not even a green light. Tried it again the right way -- still couldn't open the door.
"So I walked down to the house phone by the elevators, called the front desk and was told that someone would be up to help me promptly.
"I went down to the door and tried a couple of more times, just to make sure I wasn't being stupid. Still couldn't open the door.
"The desk clerk arrived, put in my key, got the green light and PUSHED the door open."
As for this next reader's tale, well, I suspect many of us have been there (though not, perhaps, in our underwear!):
"I never put room service trays outside the room anymore because of the following adventure in Denver a number of years ago. Picture this: nighttime, room service delivered and food eaten, I'm in my sleep T-shirt and panties. I decide to be a good guest and put the tray outside the door around 9 p.m. or so. I want to make sure it's placed just so. I lean out a little too far and hear the click of the door closing behind me.
"What to do? No hallway phones, of course. So I can't call the desk.
"I knock on some adjacent doors. No answer. I go to the elevator and push the down button. I try to conceal myself -- no ficus trees, drat! When the elevator door opens, I lean into the opening -- all male passengers, of course -- and ask them if someone will tell the desk to send up someone to unlock my room, please. And they do.
"And the teenage bellboy has a new story to regale his co-workers with. *sigh*"
Now, here's the opposite of the locked-out situation -- a tale I must say I've never heard before:
"In 1966, I was a college senior on a job interview trip. The job was computer-related, but that's where the connection ends. I checked into a quaint old hotel that had been renovated sometime in recent history. I had been living off campus and my room had an old-fashioned spring lock that used a cast-metal key. On a lark, I decided to see whether my key might fit the old lock on my hotel room door that had more recently been superseded by a modern lock.
"To my delight, the old lock reprised its forgotten role. Unfortunately, the action was not reversible.
"I called the desk seeking help. They no longer had the original keys and it was Sunday night in a small town, so no locksmith was available and no maintenance crew was on duty. I was locked in my room until the following morning!
"I was awakened by a phone call in the morning. Then a hammer and screwdriver were lowered to my window in a bucket from the room above mine. I removed the hinge pins from the door and a maintenance man pushed the door in from the outside. He then took the hammer to the door bolt and chided me for my foolishness. Finally, he rehung the door and I got on with my interview. (By the way, I didn't get the job.)"
Here's my second favorite of all the letters I received, the Case of the Mistaken Miller:
"I'm an engineer and about 10 years ago was doing a technology transfer with a company in Japan. Their people had been here a number of times and I went to visit them in Japan. Mr. Sato, whom I'd worked with here, was to pick me up at the airport. When I got to Narita, I didn't see Mr. Sato but did see two gentlemen with a sign reading 'Mr. Mark Miller' (that's my name).
"I said, 'I'm Mark Miller. So, Mr. Sato couldn't make it?'
"One of them replied, 'No. Mr. Sato-san ask us come get you. You are Mark Miller, engineer from America to come fix machine of glass?'
"The machine I was there to support was a chemical recycler built of stainless steel and glass vessels, so it was, in fact, a machine of glass. I answered, 'That's me.'
"After a three-hour drive, hotel check-in and a shower and nap, we met to go for dinner, about five hours after I had landed. En route to the restaurant they asked some questions in their broken English (far better than my completely nonexistent Japanese) that made me realize something was very wrong.
"Yes. A different Mark Miller. A different Mr. Sato (sort of the Japanese equivalent of Miller). They were supposed to pick up a Mark Miller from a company in New Jersey whose flight arrived five minutes after mine did. He was there to work on a broken machine used in the manufacturing of glass.
"Meanwhile, Mr. Sato was still at Narita, phoning his boss every half-hour or so, looking for me, being told to check the bars, check with the police, check with customs and not to leave without me.
"After a few phone calls, all was set right -- and I left with a story that I still love to tell."
That's a great tale, but this next one wins my own award for best stupid traveler trick of all:
"For Christmas one year, Virginia (my wife) and I flew from Los Angeles to Washington. Richard, my father-in-law, drove from New Jersey to Washington. All of us, including my brother's family, my sister Janet and my mom, then drove to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for Christmas and subsequent family birthday celebrations.
"Sadly, the time comes to return to cubicles and civil service madness. On the appointed day, Janet and my mom pack up and leave. My brother's family leaves. I look at the plane tickets for the 5,491st time. Departure time is 14:30. Richard agrees to hang around and take us to the airport. There isn't much to do as it's raining. Breakfast, coffee, desultory conversation. Not bad, all in all.
"At about 13:30, Richard drops us off at the airport. Hugs all around, a few sniffles from Virginia. Richard asks if we want him to wait around. This is critical. Now, I have already sowed the seeds of my disaster. My next move simply pours a ton of plant grow on them. 'No,' I say, 'looks like we got it covered.'
"Richard drives away. Even now that phrase, even typing it, is painful. Richard drives away. Oh!
"Virginia and I invade the airport with enough luggage for a three-month Holiday on Ice tour. I march up to the counter, put the tickets down and announce we're checking 54 bags. No one moves. No one offers to help. They don't look at each other. Each one is staring at me as if they were pythons and I was a crippled, 200-pound chicken that dropped from the sky to land in front of them.
"Finally, one comes forward and looks at the ticket. She reads it, looks at me, reads it again. 'You're at the wrong airport,' she says.
"Strange. Myrtle Beach has a lot of tourists, but enough for two airports? In any case, it's getting close to departure time; we need to schlep the bags into a taxi and head for the other airport.
"'Where's the other airport?' I ask.
"Suddenly it's the twilight zone. Time slows down, becoming liquid. I'm transferred to a hyperaware state. I know, though she has only begun to open her mouth, what the agent is going to say. I hear it while her lips are still forming the first fricative sound. She's going to say, 'Raleigh-Durham, N.C.'
"'Raleigh-Durham, N.C.,' she says.
"Time resumes its normal pace. Virginia doesn't understand ... yet. I am struck silent. It's impossible for me to be struck dumb. I have gone so far beyond merely 'dumb' that the Hubble Space Telescope can only see my outline out near the Horse's A** nebula.
"Raleigh-Durham, N.C., is 190 miles from where I'm standing right now. I look at Virginia, who appears to be asking, 'Could he really do something this dumb?' I realize there is no way I can lay any of this off on her. After getting her OK on the proposed itinerary, I had handled all of the travel arrangements myself. Damn. About now, I figure, Richard is on the freeway on-ramp for I-75, which will take him northward, passing within 10 miles of the Raleigh-Durham airport.
"This, of course, was my original plan: Fly to D.C., drive to Myrtle Beach, drive to Raleigh-Durham (Richard has to pass it on his way home) and fly home. Flying out of Myrtle Beach is too expensive. Save a lot of money.
"Here we are with our tickets. Our flight is 192.7 miles away, scheduled to depart in 38 minutes. If a train leaves Chicago traveling at 45 mph ...
"After we go through surprise, bewilderment, rage, sorrow, canceled checks, replay and sullen acceptance, we take stock of the situation. 'Grim' is feloniously accurate. 1) We're not going home today. 2) How much is a flight to Raleigh-Durham? 3) $800, one-way, each. 4) Greyhound -- twice a week, 16 hours one-way.
"All right, the answer is to rent a car one-way. I go to the Hertz desk and flash my Hertz Gold card, ask to rent a car. They don't have any available. I get a little louder and insistent. They say they don't have any cars. I stomp off.
"Virginia has been scoping out Avis. Since she is not 6-foot-3 and violent looking, she gets more cooperation. She has a story to tell. National Rent-A-Car, in preparation for the arrival of its new fleet of cars, has shipped the current fleet out. The new fleet has not arrived as planned. Seventy-year-old retirees in walkers have been slicing each other up with golf tees for a car. National has been hiring cab companies to transport their customers around. There are no cars.
"Normally this would be grist for my mill. I'd be in their faces, screaming, little spit bubbles flying out. But I have NO moral standing. I am ever so much more stupid than they are.
"Various avenues are explored to enhance the experience. In the end, we hire a cab to take us to Raleigh-Durham for $350. Upfront. Roy will take us. Roy looks like ... Roy looks like a guy who hangs around the airport with a cab, waiting for whatever. He brings the cab around.
"I believe it was a Chevy, but at its age, that's almost irrelevant. The light on top is broken. (I don't want to think about how this happened.) The dents are as random and about as meaningful as the amount of chrome left on it. If the Dukes of Hazzard didn't know how to fix cars and had to carry a lot of luggage, this would be their cab.
"We put the luggage in the back, trying to keep it away from the leak. Virginia gets in the back and lies down. This is my operation, she communicates. She has gone limp. I sit up front. We stop at several ATMs until I'm soaked and we find one that's working. I get Roy's money.
"As we drive through the pouring rain, I loudly and continuously talk. Roy smells just slightly of either second-rate after-shave or fourth-rate peach schnapps and seems comfortably relaxed. Heater? Maybe 15 years ago. Besides, dent bends in the doors have created a 20-decibel draft of cold, wet air. The radio does work. I learn many new facts about Jesus, such as: He had a crew cut, he knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good, so vote for school prayer for goodness' sake. What with the wind howling through, the radio has to be really loud so you can distinguish what's being said.
"Somewhere in this journey I reach the seventh circle of hell and begin to climb back to life. We arrive at the Holiday Inn just outside the Raleigh-Durham airport. This time, I don't let the vehicle escape. At registration, the clerk says, 'Gee, I don't know what our availability is.' Now I am the python. I slither across the desk and whisper, 'Check,' in the same voice Charles Manson uses at his parole hearings.
"We get a room. We pay off Roy, who helps us with the bags. I tip him well for spending over three hours listening to my opinions on e-mail, fluoridation, paged memory, real estate in Ventura County and my two dogs. He nods and leaves. It's as if Roy left our baggage on the cart, but took our baggage (you know what I mean) with him. The rain stops. The restaurant has mercy and serves us leftovers. I can stand up straight for the first time in hours. My hearing recovers. I take a deep breath -- the air is fresh, piney, cold.
"The next day we get up, shower, have breakfast, sit around, go to the airport and go home. As simple as that.
"It was not a learning experience. It isn't something I look back on and laugh. There were only clouds, no silver lining. Except, maybe, one. Virginia never said a word about it. Then or later. To me or to anyone else. I owe her for that. I owe her big time for that."
Thank you for this tale, Virginia's husband -- it doesn't get much better than that!
And to all of you who sent me your stupid traveler tricks, thank you for reassuring me that I'm not the only stupid traveler in the universe. If any of the rest of you have tales you want to share, send them to me.
Now it's my turn to share my favorite STTs: Come back next week for the painful-but-true Case of the Undocumented Daughter and the Dumbfounded Daddy.