Bouncing Vouchers

Québec City Walls
QUÉBEC, Canada
June 20, 2012

The $400 flight credit was about to expire. Nobody knew what to do with it but nobody could bear to see it go unused.

Evidently, Uncle David and Aunt Nancy were bumped from a flight when leaving Canada about a year ago. Their compensation was two vouchers each worth $200 toward a future flight on Air Canada. Unable to use them for nearly a year, Uncle David first mailed the vouchers to his twin brother, my Uncle Philip. Neither Uncle Philip nor anybody in his immediate family could use them either so he mailed the vouchers along to his older brother, my father. My father couldn't use them so he mailed them along to me. Those vouchers hopped from Washington, D.C. to New York to Seattle to Québec City.

Is this a particularly Chinese trait? Not just the inability to let anything of potential value expire--but further going to some small expense (postage) to pass the opportunity along to somebody else not knowing whether they could use it, either? Perhaps it's less peculiar to our culture and just my uncles, my father, and I who can't stand seeing anything of worth go to waste.

Used Books for Sale at
Street Fair, Rue Saint Jean
Dad finally sent the vouchers to my new P.O. box. When we'd spoken on the phone some days prior I had told him not to bother. He'd told me about them beforehand so I'd already skimmed what airfares were available going anywhere out of Québec City and Montréal. I found nothing any good. There were maybe two or three return tickets to be had for under that amount; all were to destinations that could be driven to in just a few hours. Even allowing that I might apply the credit as partial payment toward a higher fare there was still nowhere worth going. For example, I could take the train to New York and back for far less than it would cost me to fly, even using the $400 credit.

Not only are all flights in Canada expensive there were so many strings attached to using those vouchers I was dubious that I could do anything at all with the credit. The vouchers had to be redeemed in less than a month. They had to be used by the original passenger. The travel had to take place on Air Canada.

Even though I'd initially told Dad not to bother sending me the vouchers, once they were in my possession I found myself in that same conundrum as everybody else whose hands they'd passed through. I couldn't use them. What should I do with them? Was it worth trying to arrange a sibling or somebody else to come out and visit me? Could I pass them along to anybody else... ?

Québec City Walls
I eventually came up with the thought of using them for a one-way ticket out of Québec. The final term of my language program will break for Christmas vacation. As long as I booked my ticket before the vouchers expired, I could travel on the later date. A one-way fare to Vancouver around Christmastime was running at $400 CDN, give or take $20. Cheap bus services on the Bolt Bus have just opened up along the corridor connecting Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. I could get all the way back to Seattle to visit family over Christmas for nearly nothing. Then, in early January another ticket flying back to the U.S. east coast and a train back up across the border would be a very cheap way for me to return here to finish out the remainder of my term. (I've found flights within the U.S. run about half to one-third the cost of similar distances within Canada.)

At least I had an itinerary. Actually using the vouchers turned out to be a tremendous rigmarole. Though the terms and conditions stated that a travel agent would know how to redeem them, the one on campus I popped into gave a quick and certain "non" even before inspecting them closely. (At least that was a fresh scenario and good exercise for my spoken French.)

Fleuve Saint-Laurent
The only option to use them was to go to the ticket counter at the airport. I took the city bus to the stop nearest the airport and walked about 25 minutes to the terminal to see if booking a flight was possible. The woman staffing the Air Canada check-in counter asked whether the vouchers were issued in my name.

"One of them is," I said, truthfully. Conveniently, my uncle and I happen to share the same name. "But the other is in my aunt's name."

The woman at the check-in counter was discouraging.

"The coupons are transferable, but that has to be done at the airport by the person in whose name they're issued when booking your itinerary. Does your aunt live here in Québec City?"

"No, she lives in America," I said. "It is the same family name, though. Maybe we can just try and see what the system allows?"

"I'm not the ticket seller. He's gone home for dinner. You should try again another day. He won't be back until 7:00 P.M."

7:00 P.M. was only half an hour later so I decided to wait.

Forutnately, 7:00 P.M. was not only the time the ticket seller returned from dinner, but the hour the unhelpful check-in agent with penchant for restrictions and regulations finished her shift and left. The ticket seller, on the other hand, was clearly unfamiliar with the process of issuing a ticket with a credit voucher. When he muttered rather uncertainly, "I think these are transferable... " rather than re-iterate that official policy would require the original recipient showing up in-person at an airport to make the booking, I casually suggested that, "Yeah, one is in my name and the other is the same family name. They must be transferable."

U.S. Consulate, Québec City
He accepted that then proceeded to consult every other employee behind the Air Canada counter multiple times to figure out how to redeem a paper voucher. I kept waiting for somebody to catch the fact that there were two names, one not mine, on the vouchers. Nobody else noticed. The final problem came only when the booking was completed. Another ticket seller had stepped in to finish the complicated process.

"The fare for your flight to YVR is $400.18. Less the credit, that's a difference of 18¢. I assume you want to pay with cash?", she asked me.

"Sure," I said, fishing a quarter out of my coinpurse.

However, the payment system wouldn't accept cash for such a low amount. I was forced to charge 18¢ to my credit card. Paying any amount with plastic at the ticket counter initiated a process of a receipt and itinerary at least ten pages long automatically churning out from a dot-matrix printer beneath the ticket counter. Finally, I was handed a sheaf of printed paper citing the Warsaw Convention, limitations in compensation for accidental death and dismemberment, and a few lines with my flight itinerary buried somewhere on the ninth page. I had my ticket.

So, I shall be back in Seattle for Christmas this year. Convulted as the process buying it was, this flight in a sense must be my first Christmas present of 2012.

Merry solstice!