Don’t Park in Austin: a long-winded travel tale with a moral at the end

I try so hard to love Austin, really, but Austin doesn’t make it easy.

Yeah, I had so much fun there, what a cool city, it’s not like the rest of Texas, blah, blah, blah. Doesn’t matter. In life, bad memories so quickly suffocate the good ones, like a python squeezing the life out of some innocent Bambi lookalike. Bambi’s not what we remember–we remember the python . . .

When Gadling decided to hold our annual get-together deep in the heart of Texas, I was elated. For one, I’m Texan, born and bred. I planned on flying to Houston, spending some time with family, then heading up to Austin for a weekend of blogger decadence. I drove my parents’ car up and made it all the way to tiny Bastrop, Texas when my vehicle overheated (it’s darn hot in Texas). A mechanic in town said he would fix the car but that it would take the whole weekend. Luckily, this tiny Texas town had an Enterprise Rental with one last remaining rental car which allowed me to be back on the road to Austin within the hour.

Our first day in Austin was super fun as I met all the legendary magicians behind this fabulous website that you know and love. On Saturday night, the fun-loving Gadling crew went out for dinner and settled on Ironworks BBQ, which claims to be “Real Texas Barbecue.” I parked in their parking lot which had a sign that read “For Ironworks customers ONLY”, which we all were. We spent about two hours at the restaurant and probably around $300 on food collectively. Afterwords, we hit one of the nearby clubs. When I came back to the get the car (around midnight), the parking lot was empty. Apparently, once the restaurant closes, they tow. (Really? That’s how you treat your out-of-town guests?)
Now, what in the world could possibly be worse than getting your car towed? Getting towed by J&J Towing–that’s what. Apparently even weird cool hipster Austin has its share of sheisters and they all work for J&J Towing. Thanks to the internet, I discovered that J&J Towing actually has a long and strong reputation for illegal tows for which they’ve been successfully sued in several courts of law in Texas. They’ve even earned a single brave star on Yelp with the best review being “These People Need Jesus”.

I concur. These people do need Jesus, but a simple conscious would also suffice. At 1 AM, I called them up to retrieve my car. Not only were they rather rude and unhelpful, all they told me that there was, “No way you’re getting your car back this weekend.” Since I was driving a rental car, the towing company requires a notarized affidavit from my rental car company stating that the car was in fact in my name at the time of getting towed. This is a new state-wide law in Texas, according to Justin, the man I was speaking with (Justin refused to give me his last name for fear that I would send some Texas-style justice in his direction and perhaps he was right).

Realizing I was now legally liable but legally powerless, I turned to Enterprise Rental for help. I called their Roadside Assistance number, waited through 10 minutes of hold advertising and then was told by a bored employee that there was nothing she could do. And then (I kid you not) . . she hung up on me (Gasp!). Now a little angry, I then called the Customer Service line, held for another ten minutes and was told again that there was nothing they could do for me. When I asked, “That’s the best you can offer me?”, she hung up on me, too. No she didn’t!

I fell asleep angry and powerless at 3 AM, then woke up at 6:30 AM and contacted the Enterprise Rental at the Austin airport (the closest office that was open on a Sunday). I then took a cab out to the airport, handed over my first rental keys and convinced them to give me a new car for the duration of my rental. They agreed that getting a notarized affidavit on a Sunday in Texas was impossible but that it was now their problem and that this kind of thing happens “all the time.” Yes,you heard it from Enterprise: rental cars in Austin get towed all the time and are never successfully recovered by their renters.

By 11 AM on Sunday, I was situated with my third car in two days and left the final throes of Gadling’s fun-filled weekend for another day of work just north of the city. The next day, Monday, I returned my second rental car to the office in Bastrop where I discovered that my first rental car had still not been recovered. I was charged $280.00 for the towing and impound but promised that there would be no further related expenses. Enterprise confessed that they too were having a very difficult time retrieving the car from J&J Towing and that it might take days more, if not the rest of the week.

In retrospect, seeing as I had purchased full insurance on the rental car, I should have just reported the car stolen, which is actually kind of what happened. If you park in the parking lot of the establishment at which you are eating and when you come back you find the car is gone, then your car was stolen.

Now there’s a Texas way to deal with this situation and there’s the nicer way. Since, I’m a nice guy, I’m sticking to words. Frankly though, y’all disappointed me! City of Austin–you fail. Ironworks BBQ? You fail, too. And Enterprise Rental? You get a D minus (have fun getting your car back). As for J&J towing, I leave you to your own heavy stack of karma. I imagine when you eventually do get served, it’ll look something like No Country for Old Men and the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The travel moral of the story is don’t park your rental car in downtown Austin, ever. Better yet, just skip Austin and head straight to the Hill Country. They can’t tow you out there and if they try, you’re legally allowed to shoot them. The other moral of the story is that the state of Texas has a bunch of cockamamie laws regarding rental cars, so watch out!

The final moral of the story is: Don’t Mess With Gadling! Just like you don’t mess with Texas, you don’t mess with a bunch of travel writers. We may be limp-wristed computer nerds with passports, but these days, the keyboard is mightier than the tow truck.

*The real casualty in all of this was Mike Barish’s Hello Kitty piñata, who at this very moment is still sitting locked up in the scuzzy backlot of J&J towing and enduring who knows what kind of hellish torments.

British couple in Dubai faces jail time for kissing

Dubai Creek at nightPDAs (Public Displays of Affection) can make some people a little uncomfortable, but in Dubai, they’ll send you to jail.

Until recently, Dubai was booming. Tourism and business travel were growing at at an exponential rate, and Dubai became a household name-destination seemingly overnight. One of the dangers of a boom like this is that some new visitors think every place has the same rules, and that what’s okay in their own country will be okay in any country. Not so — and if you’re the offender they decide to make an example of, you’re screwed.

The incident in question actually took place last November; a British expat and a female friend were arrested for kissing and “intimate touching,” as well as consuming alcohol, in public. According to Reuters, “the case is the third time in under two years in which Britons have hit the headlines by falling foul of decency laws in Dubai.” Dubai attempted to send the couple to jail for a month and subsequently deport them.

This Sunday, a lawyer for the pair appealed by going whole-hog and saying there wasn’t any kissing. “There was no lip kissing. It was just a normal greeting that is not considered offensive,” lawyer Khalaf al-Hosani told the court, adding that the two in question are “just friends.”

The couple is currently free on bail and have paid their $272 fine for illegal alcohol consumption. The verdict deciding whether or not they’ll go to jail is expected April 4.


New law demands that some Amtrak passengers be locked in boxes

Back in September, Tom wrote about an upcoming Senate vote which planned to allow passengers to carry guns on Amtrak trains. The whole idea meant that Amtrak would need to install gun safes on all their trains, or risk losing their multi-billion Dollar funding.

Well, the proposal reached President Obama on Wednesday, and he signed it into law.

Only, he actually signed for a law forcing Amtrak to lock passengers in a box if they carry guns on the train. That’s right – a simple error has now created a law that (at least on paper) may prove to be unenforceable.

When trying to determine who screwed up, nobody was really able to take the blame, and it may all come down to a simple printing error. Either way, the law is the law.

Thankfully for gun owners, it can be fixed, and Amtrak was given six months to implement the new gun rules, giving lawmakers plenty of time to fix the error before Amtrak needs to invest in people size safes.

Once the law is corrected, and Amtrak has gun safes installed on their trains, passengers will indeed be permitted to travel with their firearm – and the theory behind the entire scheme is that they may be able to prevent terror attacks. To me, it all sounds like a huge hassle – and sooner or later, someone is going to get off the train, and forget their gun. Just wait and see.

People with guide dogs have been denied flights and a hamburger

Guide dogs are nothing new. Most commonly known for helping people who are blind navigate the world around them, they are gaining use in helping people with other types of disabilities. Also called service dogs, some are now being used by war veterans with post traumatic stress disorders. The more service dog use increases, the more likely they will be part of the traveler’s scene. Unfortunately, not everyone who works in the service industry knows the laws and rules that protect service dog owners. This has created a few snafus.

There is a current lawsuit against McDonald’s for a situation that started with the refusal of service. When Luis Carlos Montalván, a former U.S. army captain who was wounded in Iraq, came to a McDonald’s in Brooklyn with his service dog, he was told he could not bring the dog inside. Montalván complained to the company CEO which resulted in a sign installed at the restaurant indicating that service dogs are welcome.

The lawsuit came about after this incident because Montalván claims that when he returned to this McDonald’s after the sign was installed, he was denied service by a different manager. When Montalván later came back with a camera to take a picture of the sign that said he should be able to have service, two employees accosted him.

In another recent guide dog incident, a blind couple and their dog were denied boarding on a Jetstar plane in Australia even though the airline does allow people with service dogs to fly. [Jaunted]

In both of these cases, the problem arose because the people who worked for the organization weren’t aware of the rules of an organization or the law. I would bet they hadn’t come across someone with a service dog before either. As much as a service dog looks like a regular dog, it’s not. Guide dogs are not pets.

What are the laws anyway? In the U.S. the Department of Justice outlines them quite clearly. In essence, a person with a service dog cannot be denied service. Period–except from what I can tell from reading the guidelines, if the dog is barking during a movie or if it acts up somewhere. Since service dogs are taught not to bark or act up, such behavior would be unlikely.

If you do see a service dog, don’t pet it when its harness is on. That means it’s “working” with an important job to do.

Only approved electronic devices allowed in the cockpit?

Maybe the flight attendants should start talking to the cockpit, too. When a plane overshot Minneapolis last month because the crew was playing around with personal laptops, national attention turned to what actually goes on in the front of the plane. Congress is kicking around the idea of a new bill that would kick personal electronic devices from the cockpit.

Unsurprisingly, the pilots and airlines aren’t crazy about the idea. They say that the measure would impede progress by making innovation less accessible. Scott Schleiffer, a cargo pilot who’s also thrown some brain time at safety issues for the Air Line Pilots Association, told USA Today, “We would like to have access to tools, and as tools evolve, we would like to have better tools.”

FAA chief Randy Babbit agrees, saying, “We need to be very careful,” in regards to the prohibition of personal devices in the cockpit.

Airlines are starting to bring new technology into the cockpit, with laptops and other devices used to improved weather and safety information. The devices aren’t all that different from what distracted the Northwest pilots who missed Minneapolis. JetBlue has issued laptops to pilots, which are used to push through calculations during takeoff and landing. But, the airline doesn’t allow personal use of them.

So far, two bills have been introduced in the Senate. They would exempt devices used to operate the plane or help with safety issues, but pilots don’t believe that this is enough.

Neither side of the argument addresses the core problem: keeping pilots focused on the job. In theory, extraordinary measures shouldn’t be necessary. Professionals, by definition, should not need that kind of intense oversight. It’s already against the against the law for pilots not to pay attention to their responsibilities, and that’s probably enough regulation. Instead, the solution needs to come to the airlines — organizational measures are needed to ensure that professionals remain professional. Executed properly, the good ones shouldn’t even notice a different.