Comfort Inn: No Comfort, No Inn

Remember, LORD, against Edom
that day at Jerusalem.
They said: "Raze it, Raze it
down to its very foundations!"
Oh, Comfort Inn, Jamaica, Queens
You destroyer
Happy be he who repays you
The evil you have done us

I had what I think could be fairly termed a very bad day yesterday. Only the end of it, of course. Everything started to go wrong at the exact moment, around 3:00, when my editor and I decided that I should go to upstate New York for a few days in order to round out a story I'm working on.

By 5:30, I had an airline ticket for 8 PM and a rental car. By 7PM, I was at the airport bright eyed and bushytailed, ready to jet off to the exotic wilds of Western New York State. By 12:30, I expected to be there, ready to report on the quaint customs of the locals. It was one of those glamorous journalist moments you often dream about, but rarely experience. Rolly bag in one hand, wallet in the other, I stuck my credit card in the slot and printed out my boarding passes.

Now, I am not particularly good at math; a little light calculus is about my speed. Nonetheless, when I saw that my flight from New York City to Rochester was scheduled to depart at 10:55, while my flight from Washington to New York City was not scheduled to take off until 10:44, I suspected that there might be some flaw in the planning. I also noticed, apropos of nothing in particular, that the takeoff time for my flight was some two hours and forty-four minutes after Jet Blue's preternaturally perky website had told me I could expect to be upping wheels. I presented my bewilderment to the desk clerk.

"That flight's delayed," she said, unecessarily. I explained about the connection. "Yes," she said, "there's no way you're getting to Rochester tonight." Weather up and down the East Coast, you see, was playing havoc with schedules.

I do not mean to paint her as callous. In fact, she was incredibly nice and apologetic, and spent 20 minutes in a tag-team strategy session during which flight times were checked, hotel sites consulted, and desired wake-up hours considered. Expedia informed me that I could stay in New York City near JFK for $152 a night, plus applicable taxes and fees. After considering that my alternative was to take a $60 cab ride back from Dulles, and then do the entire thing all over again the next morning at 4 am, the hotel room looked positively cheap. To be sure, it was a Comfort Inn, and Comfort Inns do not, in my experience, always live up to their name. But how bad could it be, I asked jauntily, clicking "book it now" and then marching off to security.

Do not, my children, ever speak those words out loud. You are challenging the travel gods to do their worst, And in these days of cavity searches and theological arguments over whether my prescription face cream is, or is not, a banned substance, their worst can be very, very bad indeed.

I suppose you have already guessed that my plane did not, in fact, take off at 10:44. By the time I had gotten to the gate, its ETD had already changed to 11:30. Subsequently, it would change to "Whenever the plane gets here from wherever the hell it is," which, for future reference, turns out to be sometime around 12:15.

I hadn't realized Dulles was so cold at night. The coffee gave out around 10, whereupon I was reduced to wrapping myself in every piece of clothing I'd brought and trying to sleep. I suspect that if I hadn't tidily thrown away my much-used coffee cup, some kind stranger would have dropped a quarter in it as I lay swaddled in sweatpants and herringbone tweed suit jackets. At 12:15 they boarded us. At 12:25, we took off. At 1:00, I stumbled out into the terminal and hailed a cab.

Where is the Comfort Inn, Jamaica? Asked my driver.

It is, I proudly informed him, having already memorized the address in the interest of maxmizing my sleep time before the 9:25 am flight to Rochester, at 87-05 Van Wyck.

Where is that? Asked my cab driver. I will note, in passing, for those who have not enjoyed the many benefits of residence in New York City, that the Van Wyck is the road to JFK. From the airport, it is about as hard to find as your own feet. Nonetheless, he called for directions.

I should have known. I should have known when, before they would give him directions, they asked him who he was.

You know what happened, don't you? You do. But you can't quite believe it. You've heard the urban legends, about hotels who give away the rooms of travelers on delayed flights, because someone else is willing to pay more money for them. But come on, you're thinking. They didn't really

At least, that's what you're thinking if you're anything like me. Indeed, the same thought kept running through my head as I listened numbly to the hotel clerk explain that she had had to cancel my reservation because she had been unable to charge my credit card, and had therefore thought that I was not coming.

You deadbeat, her voice said.

Let us dissect this a little. My Visa card, a worn but proud little piece of plastic with my alma matter's crest right on it (that in itself is a long story), is nowhere near its limits, because I'm one of those anti-debt freaks. Moreover, the credit card had already been authorised by Expedia, through which I booked the room. At 8 PM. What were the odds, really, that I had booked a (nonrefundable) room at 8PM and then decided not to come by 10PM?

Furthermore, the clerk had had a good four hours or so before I got on the plane in which to discover that the card was unchargeable and call me. This had not happened. When I pointed this out, the details of whom, exactly, she had tried to call became extraordinarily fuzzy. Maybe she hadn't tried to call me; maybe she'd just gotten bored waiting on hold to Expedia and hung up, and sold my room. But on one point she was crystal clear. She had tried to charge my credit card--twice!--and been unable to do so.

Over the next three minutes, I went through more emotions than a small-town amateur dramatics society doing Hamlet: the Musical. I wept. I cajoled. I threatened. I raged. I pleaded. All of which was no avail; she had no rooms. And the reason for her insistence that she couldn't charge my card became abruptly clear: since they hadn't charged the card, she said, they had no obligation to find me another one.

I a gesture of great munificence, she did finally give me the number of several other hotels in the area. You will not be surprised to hear . . . as indeed, I was not . . . that they had no rooms at 1:30 am, what with all the delayed flights.

So there I was sitting in a taxi at the mouth of the Van Wyck Expressway with no housing. I ordered the cab to take me back to the airport, paying $10 for the privilege of a private midnight tour of the Greater JFK Landscaping Program.

As he made his weary way back to the airport, I called the credit card company to find out what had happened. Why would they have declined the charge?

They hadn't, they said. Indeed, they had authorised a charge of $172.00, this being what $152 works out to after taxes, licensing, and applicable fees.

Perhaps that had been Expedia. Had the hotel attempted to authorise further charges and been declined?

They forwarded me to authorisations. Nope, no one had attempted to authorize any sort of charge, except the ones they'd approved.

Another call to the clerk, who kept on with her story. She'd tried to authorize the card, twice.

I pointed out, first, that the moral thing to do would be to find me another hotel room; and second, that I am a naturally vindictive person who was going to have a very long talk with customer service tomorrow about the hotel's booking practices. This was greeted with about as much interest as if she'd accidentally tuned into the gardening report. I tried to charge it, twice, she repeated . . .

(You debt-ridden hag. Maybe if you paid your bills, you wouldn't be huddled on the floor of an airport terminal at 2 am, trying to keep warm by wrapping your yoga tights around your exposed skin.)

I called Choice Hotels main reservation line. They chose to listen silently to my plight, offer to find me a room at the three hotels I had already discovered were booked solid, and let me go without regret.

At 2 am, I got Expedia involved. The Expedia phone rep, who seemed to be located somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, and therefore not close enough to do what I wanted him to, which was storm in like the gnome in the television commercials and save me, called the hotel. He returned to report that she had tried to charge the card, twice, to no avail.

I was, by this point, pretty much the only person left in the terminal. The guy sweeping the floors asked me why I didn't go home. I have no home, I replied sadly. However, the cavernous and deserted space did give my shouting into my now-dying cell phone a sort of echoing grandeur that helped put me in the correct righteous mood.

But they are lying, I said. The rep did that customer service rep thing where they don't say anything commital, but nonetheless convey the impression that you are a lunatic.

I checked with the card company, I said, twice. No one attempted a further authorization on the card after the first, successful one.

He remained noncommittal. He isn't there to judge. If my credit card bounces like Ricochet Rabbit, well, we all have hard times occasionally. The main thing now was to get me off the phone.

Of course, there was nothing the telephone guy could do anyway; it's not like they give their outsourcing center the power to shut hotels out of the network. But in the cold light of day, I do hope someone is taking a long, hard, look at the Comfort Inn, Jamaica, Queens.

Eventually, the Expedia clerk seemed to realize that this was not some customer complaining that the Ficus in her hotel room doesn't smell fresh, and that being as I was stuck in the terminal with nowhere to go, I had literally all night to prosecute my complaint. Once he grokked that finding me another hotel room was the best way to get off the phone, he sprang into action. He did not, alas, offer to pay for the extra charges thus incurred, but at least he tried to make sure I had, y'know, a blanket and some good ol' central heating.

Ah, central heating. You young people don't know how lucky you are . . .

The Expedia guy rapidly discovered what I already knew, which is that the reason the clerk had given away my room is that in the immediate vicinity of JFK, hotel rooms were in extraordinarily short supply. Something about like copies of the National Review on Soviet newsstands, actually. But circa 2:55, a room at the Hampton Inn was found for only $150 more than the original room I'd booked had cost.

Their credit card machine was down, said the guy from Expedia, and anyway Expedia can't do same day bookings, so I'd have to go straight there and give them my card. His voice implied that I seemed nice enough, and he sure hoped I got away before the machine was repaired and they found out I was a deadbeat. I was saddened at the lost opportunity to prove that I can, so, front three c-notes when the occasion requires, but overjoyed at the thought of bed. I jumped into a cab, checked in with lightning speed, and managed to get a solid 3.5 hours of sleep before I had to get back up to make my flight. Unfortunately, there was no real time for frivolities like showers, but thankfully I'm pretty sure the octagenarian in the seat next to me had long ago lost her sense of smell.

The Hampton Inn, JFK, by the way, was lovely: nothing much to look at, but big soft beds and some very helpful clerks who tried to aid me in getting the Comfort Inn, Jamaica, Queens to pay my freight. Sadly, this was to no avail, but they put me up anyway, and this morning, when I overslept slightly and missed the airport shuttle, found me a delightfully insane woman who drove her minivan up onto the sidewalk in an attempt to get me to JFK on time.

Because I thought I owed the clerk the courtesy of checking with the credit card company again, I did so when I finally got to a computer today. I got the same answer, which is that my card had been charged, and no further authorizations attempted. Because I'm a little bit crazy, and also because i already have the technology in order to do phone interviews, I recorded that call. And then I talked again to the people at the Comfort Inn, Jamaica, Queens.

Yes, the man there said, it our records show we tried to authorize your card and failed.

I just spoke to my credit card company and they say that isn't true, I said.

I don't see anything here, he said, with the beginnings of dismissal in his voice.

I recorded the telephone call with the credit card company, I said, as sweetly as I could muster (which, I'm afraid I must confess, wasn't very.) Would you like to listen to it?

I want to get to the bottom of this, he said. Let me check my records and call you back.

Which he just did. And what do you suppose their records show? They show that the Comfort Inn, Jamaica, Queens, charged my card last night sometime between 8 and 9 pm. And then . . . no, it's okay, stop holding your breath . . . did not attempt any further authorizations.

I can't imagine what could have happened, said the manager.

I am so un-cynical about things like this that a friend recently looked at me after a particularly Polly-annaish statement to the effect that people usually make political arguments in good faith, and said, "And what else have you learned about us during your stay on our planet?" Nonetheless, even I, who cannot do math and believes that everyone is a good person, deep down inside, could figure out what had happened: someone had offered her more money for the room. The rain delays at JFK meant that hotels near the airports were packed solid; I chose the Comfort Inn in the first place because it was the classiest of the remaining three hotels available on Expedia. (No, seriously: one of the other places was, last time I looked, known to rent rooms by the hour).

I want to find out what happened, said the manager; I will call you back tomorrow.

I can't wait to hear the explanation for the clerk's vociferous insistence that she had--twice!--attempted to charge my card. The thing demands a rather high degree of artistry. Has she recently gone off her meds, leading to a recurrence of her visual hallucinations? Is she a compulsive liar? Have they confused me with the other Megan McArdle who booked a hotel room at 8 pm yesterday through Expedia? Did God, acting through the credit card machine at the Comfort Inn, Jamaica, Queens, cause it to malfunction so as to force me into a wandering exile?

Obviously, whatever the explanation, it will not make me any less filthy or exhausted, or give me, in retrospect, a more productive day out of my few here. There are only two things I can do: rant to you, and file a new learning away in the indelible memory box: when you have a choice between any "Choice" hotel, particularly a Comfort Inn, and especially the Comfort Inn, Jamaica, Queens, choose the fleabag that rents rooms by the hour. At least the people who mug you there won't try to convince you that it's your fault.