I mentioned this on Twitter yesterday:
Here’s the full story on it.
Yesterday I flew home from Spain, where I’d spent a week at the Celsius 232 festival in Aviles. It was a lovely time, and the first two legs of the flight — Asturias to Madrid, Madrid to Chicago — went fine. But when I got to Chicago, my flight to Dayton kept getting delayed. After the third delay I should have just tried to rent a car, but I decided to stick it out. For my pains my flight was cancelled at 8:30 and my rescheduled flight wouldn’t be until 10pm the next day, meaning that I wouldn’t get home until after midnight on Tuesday (i.e., today). It’s ridiculous that the leg from Chicago to Dayton would take almost three times longer than the leg from Madrid to Chicago; I decided to rent that car after all.
And found that there was no car rental service in Chicago that would give me a one-way rental to Dayton. That was in itself unusual; I’ve done the one-way rental before when I was stuck in Chicago, and it’s normally not really a problem. But this Sunday it was. I checked the O’Hare car rental services: None. I expanded my search outside O’Hare to other rental locations in Chicago: The locations were either closed or didn’t have one-way rentals.
Finally I went on the American Express site to see if I could rent a car one-way through there. And I could! Literally, there was one car available in all of Chicago, through Hertz. It wouldn’t be available until 7am the next day, but that would still get me home earlier than the flight, and I was going to have to get a hotel room anyway, so fine. I rented it and when I did, I noticed that the pickup was at someplace called Signature Flight Services, not the usual Hertz location. So I called Hertz, gave them my confirmation number, and confirmed with the person on the other end — several times! — that indeed I was meant to go to Signature Flight Services, not the Hertz location at O’Hare. The person on the other end said “yes” each time, so, fine.
The next morning I was at Signature Flight Services bright and early at 7am. At 7:07 I called Hertz and asked where my car was. They said I would have to call the O’Hare Hertz location directly and ask what the deal was, and gave me the number. I called the number, only to discover that if you don’t have the extension number of the specific person you want to reach, you can’t actually call the O’Hare Hertz location directly. So I called the reservation line and pointed out the problem of not having an extension. They said I would have to call the O’Hare Hertz and talk to them about that.
The next bit of dialogue is paraphrased but essentially true to the conversation that followed.
“So, you understand the part where I said that without a specific extension, I can’t actually reach anyone at the O’Hare Hertz, correct?” I asked.
“We don’t have any extensions to give you,” the Hertz person said. “You’ll have to call the local number.”
“So your solution to me not being able to reach anyone at the O’Hare Hertz because I don’t have a specific extension is to give me the number that if I call I can’t use to reach anyone, because I don’t have an extension to call.”
“It’s the only number we have in our system,” the Hertz representative said, sensing my irritation.
“Look, I’m not angry with you,” I said. “But I want you to acknowledge that the way you’re telling me to deal with the problem of a number I can’t use is just to give me that number again.”
At which point I hung up and the very nice people at Signature Flight Services let me take their shuttle over to the actual O’Hare car rental building, where I could to talk to the real live local Hertz people about my rental, and why it wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and if, since I was now there, in front of them, they would give it to me so I could be on my way.
Turns out, they wouldn’t give it to me.
And here is why: Apparently, Signature Flight Services is part of the area where charter flights go through O’Hare. If I had flown in through the graces of a charter flight, then Hertz would have happily given me the one-way car rental. But since I flew into O’Hare on a commercial flight, like a common schmuck, Hertz wouldn’t give me the car, even though they clearly had it to give. Basically, I wasn’t rich enough to rent the car Hertz had allowed me to reserve, so they weren’t going to let me have it. Which, I don’t know. Seems like a real dick move on Hertz’s part, and doesn’t incline me to use them ever again for anything. The dude at the reservation counter seemed to think so too — he checked to see if anything else was available, but otherwise there was nothing he could do. I was out of a car.
And once again, no one else in Chicago — the entire city, as far as I could tell — had a one way rental available. Which seemed ridiculous. It’s the third largest city in the United States. You would think it would be possible. But clearly not.
At this point, because I was frustrated and mostly to grimly amuse myself, I clicked on the Lyft app on my phone and entered my home address to see how much it would cost to take one to from O’Hare to my doorstep, a journey with a grand total of 301 miles.
Turns out it would cost about $330. Which, as it happens, was only a little bit more than what it would have cost for that one-way rental that Hertz wasn’t going to give me even though they had the car.
I considered about it for a minute, and then thought, why the hell not, and scheduled the ride. The worst case scenario in this situation is that no one would take the fare, and I would be no worse off than I already was. After a few seconds, I was matched with a car, and I went out to meet the driver.
I had a suspicion that the app might not tell the driver exactly where I was going, so when the driver — Victor — pulled up, I double-checked with him.
“I want to be absolutely clear what you’re getting into,” I told him. “I’m asking you to drive me to Ohio.”
“The state?” he asked.
He thought about it for a second, consulted his own Lyft app (which hadn’t, in fact, told him the destination, just that it was more than 30 minutes away), and then looked back to me, and sort of shrugged. “I like long trips. This could be fun.” Then he popped the trunk for my luggage.
And you know what? It was fun. Victor, in addition to being a Lyft driver, had been a news editor back in his native country, so he and I talked about writing and history and travel and other subjects, listened to music and otherwise had a pretty enjoyable time over the roughly five hours it took to get me home. When I got home I tipped him hugely, gave him one of my books (The Collapsing Empire) and signed it for him, and otherwise thanked him for getting me home, and doing it in such a pleasant fashion.
And then I collapsed, because fuck, it had been a long couple of days trying to get home. It’s ridiculous that the longest and most exhausting part of a transatlantic journey was the last three hundred miles, on US soil, but of course it was, why wouldn’t it be. This all confirms my opinion that O’Hare is possibly the worst of all major US airports, and it’s certainly given me the opinion that Hertz should be my last possible option when getting anywhere. On the flip side, I feel more positively about Lyft. I generally use standard cabs when I can, but Lyft is my backup when it’s not feasible. They and Victor came through for me yesterday, and with flying colors. I appreciate it immensely.
In the post-trip Twitter discussion, there was some observation that my decision to take a Lyft all the way home was something not everyone could do, or would feel safe doing. And I can’t argue that. Being able to spend a few hundred dollars to get home via a Lyft simply because one doesn’t want to wait for a rescheduled flight is not something that everyone gets to do. Neither is being able to do it without having to consider whether it’s safe to be in some stranger’s car for five hours, and who will travel three hundred miles with you to drop you off at your house. It’s all true. Welcome to my privilege! I acknowledge it. And also, my privilege in this case would have meant nothing if I hadn’t been fortuitously paired with a driver who thought something like this would be an adventure, rather than just a pain in his ass. I am lucky all the way around this time.
But inasmuch as I am lucky in these respects, I now have a pretty great story of how I took a three-hundred-mile, five-hour Lyft ride because the thought of being stranded at O’Hare one more minute than I really had to be was too much to bear. And since it was part of a business trip (I was at a book festival in Spain, after all!), it’s even tax-deductible. As far as ridiculous travel stories go, this ended up as a best case scenario.
And, of course, best of all: I got to go home. I missed it and everyone there. It was good to be back, however I got there.