My Priceline Staycation
I. Captain Kirk and His Talent for Customer Service
First, let it be said, before I add anything to the introduction of this mini-blog, that I’m extremely embarrassed to use the made-up word “staycation” in a piece of my writing. As a sometime travel journalist, I hear the fake term on a nearly daily basis, see it in grating marketers’ “tweets,” and read it in press releases. But perhaps out of some need for self-abuse I felt that if I should undertake one project in the next month that assessed a fabricated travel industry trend, it might well include looking into this term and its practical applications, especially if I could conceptually mash it up with a firsthand dive into our current world of online airfare and hotel-room hockery.
As I understand it, the “word” (and, if you don’t mind, I will heretofore make all attempts to refer to “staycation” as “SC,” lest I begin to feel like someone who enjoys Sandra Bullock movies) simply refers to spending one’s vacation in or around one’s town, city, region, etc. In that sense, of course, I have taken more than my share of SCs.
At the moment, I live in a particularly SC-friendly city: Los Angeles. But I don’t have to spend two nights in Malibu, riding waves by day and downing sushi by night, to feel restored. I can simply turn off my e-mail account for 48 hours, hike the hills behind our house, spend evenings outside, and enjoy conversations with my wife.
That said, the recently ashy fire air of Los Angeles had been getting to me this past week, and, well, I love hotels. Good ones, at least.
Furthermore, there remain myriad L.A. haunts in which I have yet to lay my head. So, in the wake of my brother Seth raving about his recent Priceline.com experience, bidding for and receiving an excellent hotel room in Tokyo, I acquiesced to the coercive powers of Captain Kirk.
“Let’s try it,” I said to my wife Lina, laying out my plan. “I’ll bid $100 a night for a luxury hotel room in only a few cities of Los Angeles. I’ll only check off the boxes for Beverly Hills/West Hollywood, distinct cities in their own rights, and Santa Monica/Marina Del Rey, which will at least guarantee we’ll be close to a beach.” Lina studied me. She knew how picky I could be about where we stayed, even overnight for a wedding. I reminded her of Seth’s success. “He ended up with a executive suite room and free drinks all day! He spent happy hour with the chef Ming Tsai!” I didn’t know if the last part of my sentence was actually true, but Seth had said he’d seen the guy on his floor.
The point was to get excited about something. Labor Day weekend and its pressures were upon us, and we were going to buck the system: “luxury” for $100. Or not, as I reminded Lina. What were the chances this would work? I purposely bid a Benjamin because I didn’t want to take a stupid risk. I knew that even with current drops in hotel prices, $100 for a four-star Beverly Hills or Santa Monica hotel room was pushing it — especially because Hotels.com had earlier shown me the average clearance sale prices for such accomodations were hovering around $200.
But I wanted to stir up a little travel magic. We had ruled out a weekend in Las Vegas for a host of reasons — one of which, aside from the fact that there’s nothing redeemable or relaxing about the city, especially over a holiday weekend, was Lina’s understandable boredom with gambling. But I clearly got a sick thrill from the habit, as long as my risks seemed informed: What were the odds Priceline.com would bestow upon us a four-star $100 room in the L.A. cities I had checked?
“If anything,” I told Lina,”We’ll prove that the system doesn’t work. It won’t find us a $100 room with these criteria, and then we’ll be done with our little game.” So I clicked on the Priceline Negotiator Button, only to see the system enter Search Mode, Captain Kirk displayed prominently on my computer screen, smiling like a cracked-out Mona Lisa. We watched with delight — we were participating in a Stupid American Travel Scam; apparently my years of experience in this field amounted to nothing!
Almost a full minute passed as the system churned — were drunk monkeys cranking wooden gears behind that LCD? — and I was now fairly certain that we’d have to enjoy ourselves some other way that evening. Then, two minutes. “It won’t find us a room for this rate,” I declared. Three minutes. “Do you think my computer’s broken?” I asked Lina. I was sure it couldn’t find a room, but at this point, I worried that my lovable PC had crashed the way that Justin Long and his Cupertino Overloards had requested. “Give it one more second,” said Lina. I did. And then the search screen stopped like a roulette wheel, introducing a new reality.
For $100 a night, plus a hefty tax, we had won the irrevocable “option” to either stay home or sleep two nights on Avenue of the Stars in the Hyatt Century Plaza (right), a gargantuan, curved, glass-walled hotel in the heart of lovely Century City, the most impersonally corporate region of Los Angeles, literally steps from both the Creative Artists Agency Deathstar and ICM, to say nothing of a mall and 405 traffic. A place (most) writers routinely fear, crawling with 5,000 Ari Gold wannabes. A place lacking street parking. A non-neighborhood devoid of virtue outside the clearly defined city limits of West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica.
Did that mean the system wronged us? I looked to Lina for support. “Century City is not technically in any of those cities,” she confirmed. Priceline was wrong. I bid extremely low to stay in specific cities, not near specific cities. A fine print explanation of city limits did not appear on Priceline. But I knew the geography of Los Angeles. I had maps and municipal codes on my side.
So I made the second Giant Mistake of the Night and called Priceline’s excuse for a customer service department. I was met with a friendly hello from a young man called Billy to whom I calmly explained our plight. “You have a point there,” Billy said in response to my argument. “Let me put you on hold and just talk to someone to real quick.” Hope. It would feel even better to catch Priceline on a technicality than to simply find out I could not snag a luxury hotel for $100. Billy returned. “Sir, would you mind holding for just one more minute, I think something can be done about this.” And then: “Sir, thanks for holding. Would you mind if I put you on with a different customer service representative?” I answered in the affirmative. I was Making Something Happen.
Sadly, however, after Billy raised my hopes, an android called Mandy joined the conversation. She said I had digitally signed a contract to let Priceline find me rooms in any of the Shaded Areas on the so-called Priceline Map. (What Priceline Map?) Either way, I said, these Shaded Areas were incorrect. Mandy said that they did not adhere to actual city limits but that that wasn’t the issue. I replied that what she did not understand was that they would have to use city limits in a bizarre city like LA where many Mini Cities with their own limits — to say nothing of laws, taxes, and other municipal issues — sat inside a larger Mother City.
Mandy repeated that I had agreed to Priceline’s policy, and that my hotel rested comfortably in the Beverly Hills Area. I repeated that the hotel’s official address revealed that it did not sit on Beverly Hills land; I could call the city to confirm the fact.
She repeated her mantra. I said her Shaded Area was So Fucking Wrong She Could Go To… Ok, I didn’t exactly say that, but that’s about where I was headed. Mandy replied that she could send me higher up the food chain but that no one in her Corporate Structure would have the ability to refund my money. Did I want a king bed? If so, I could call the Hyatt. And remember: parking is extra.
I looked at Lina, who had sat patiently watching this unnecessary affair. I shook my head. She seemed unfazed. I hung up.
“We’re Staycationing in Century City,” I said.
“For two nights?” she asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“That’s not so bad,” Lina said. “Considering that it’s really in Dubai…”
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