Tuesday, November 26, 2013

VIA Rail Gift Card Hell

I've tried dutifully to book a trip to Toronto through VIA Rail. Why VIA Rail and not Porter Airlines or WestJet that would get me to Toronto from Ottawa faster for almost the same price?   Simple really, I was given a VIA Rail gift card last year that I wish to use.

It really should not take over an hour to book a trip either, especially with a VIA Rail gift card in hand. But nonetheless, it did.  How? Well lets return to the start of the story.

My wife and I logged in to our VIA Preference account that we had surprisingly accumulated points in and entered our promotional code to receive 10% on our ticket purchase. Next we visited VIA Rail's website to search through departure dates and times.  We chose a date, worked through the process of confirming our trip and got to the payment form.

At this point we were stymied, the only two options was to pay by credit card and via Interac.  Where is the spot to pay by gift card?  I looked again, nothing.

I opened a new browser window so I wouldn't lose my payment screen and have to go through the trip selection process again.  I searched the VIA Rail website for "Gift Card" and found several search results.  The first result VIA Rail was promoting the gift to business owners of travel on VIA Rail to employees or business contacts by giving a gift card.   Further down the search terms was where Gift Cards could be used.  I scrolled through that page and it was indicated Gift Cards could be only used at VIA Rail stations in person.  There was no mention of how to use the gift cards online

Really? Gift cards can be used online on a variety of websites.  Usually it is to enter the gift card number and, on the other side, scratch off a portion of the card to reveal the PIN number to use as a password.  Pretty simple really.  Too bad VIA Rail has not caught up with this concept.

No problem, I don't live too far from the Ottawa Train Station.  The only hitch, you must access the Ottawa Train station from the north side of the station.  There is no access to the south of the station either via a bridge overall or a tunnel underneath the rail tracks to the main building. Hopefully this anachronism, especially with the growth of the Trainyards Shopping Centre and the Alta Vista community to the south will be restructured with the coming OC Transpo LRT construction.  This is a little troubling as the only access really is a long walk via the recreational paths, take the OC Transpo Transitway or drive.  So I took the circuitous route on OC Transpo to get to the Ottawa Train Station.

After arriving at the train station, I waited in line at the ticket counter.  Only 1 agent was available who was already helping another customer.  Since I was the only other person in line, this wasn't too bad.  After three minutes, another agent showed up and welcomed me.

I ventured over to the counter and explained what I was trying to do.  His response, you are better to order the tickets online as they would be cheaper.  I said that is great in all but how do I use the gift card?  The online instructions had indicated the only way to use the gift card was to order train tickets at the station.  

At this point I'm shaking my head.  This optically from the customer's point of view was nothing but a cash grab by VIA Rail. Tickets online are cheaper and thus the gift of cash towards a trip is way better than a VIA Rail gift card. Why? Because the only way to use the hunk of plastic issued by VIA Rail is to purchase tickets at the railway station which cost more than via the website. But, I digress.

The agent ran through the booking on his computer and showed me the exact same trip from Ottawa to Toronto on his reservation system, including taxes, would cost $162.75.  That same trip I had pulled up online was going to cost us $148.48.  A difference of $14.27 between the two options.  So basically, for two tickets we were being charged $14.27 to use our gift card as indicated by the VIA Rail website on using the gift card.  Apparently with VIA Rail, cash is King or pay an additional fee to use a VIA Rail issued gift card.

The VIA Rail agent explained that I could use the gift card if I wished using the following method:

1. Purchase the train tickets online using a credit card.

2. Visit the train station counter with the reservation codes and the VIA Rail gift card for a refund.

I couldn't believe the agent.  I asked him to provide this method in writing.  He handed me a paper pad and I started writing it so he could sign off on it.  He stopped me after writing about three letters and gave me his business card and said have whomever is doing the transaction call him if there was an issue in refunding the gift card if I had my reservation code in hand.

I took the business card, rolled my eyes and headed home after a wasted trip. On the OC Transpo trip back home I reviewed the business card.  The agent's name and title of "IN-CHARGE" and, bolded, "CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE CORRIDOR EAST".  Interesting job title "IN-CHARGE", in charge of what? Customer Experience on the East Corridor?  Perhaps this is why I would have paid $14.27 difference between ordering online and in person with him, his expert service of typing things into his computer and getting a ticket issued. Seems he doesn't have the tools to be "IN-CHARGE" of "Customer Experience" if he is unable to waive the price difference.  His only solution was for me to contact "VIA Rail Customer Service".  Great, the typical "It's not my problem, call head office" type deal.  Perhaps in the future VIA Rail head office could empower the employee with the "IN-CHARGE" management sounding type title of Customer Experience with the ability to actually improve the Customer Experience by resolving such obvious glaring issues as the inability for a company to take payment through their own e-commerce website via a payment type that the company has so obviously approved, a gift card.

Upon arriving home my Spidey senses were tingling.  So I called VIA Rail customer service and navigated through the traditional phone hell large companies put you through in order to get to someone who may know half of what you are talking about and can read from the corporate issued script.  

I pressed "1" for "English" and then listened to at least seven different options.  I chose "5" for website help and then was put on hold for "the next available agent".  The usual apologies for the hold and implorations for the customer to stay with them to maintain priority status.  After 5 minutes on hold I was starting my usual wondering of any corporate phone hell by asking "Does VIA Rail actually give me as a customer any 'priority' on the phone?"  and saying "If VIA Rail actually cared and gave customers 'priority' they would have enough people to answer the phone.  

Marie picked up just short of the 6 minute mark.  I explained my problem to her about the gift card.  She said the exact same process as the "IN-CHARGE" agent from the Ottawa Train Station.  I asked about the price difference between ordering at the station and at home for the exact same trip using the exact same VIA Preference accounts and discount codes.  Marie put me on hold and the call dropped.

I dialed back in to the VIA Rail phone hell system again.  This time a different phone message came on before I could press "1" and then "5".  The message explained in both English and French that there was "a higher than normal call volume which may lead to extended waits." Great, their own phone system dumped me off before the message.

Funny though, this time after pressing the "5", I waited only 3 minutes for "Robert" to pick up.  I explained to Robert my trials of using the Gift Card and what I'd been told.  Robert at the beginning said that I was told wrong that I would not be able to use my Gift Card in that method.  I asked him to double check because now 2 out of 3 VIA Rail employees, including one "IN-CHARGE" had indicated I could purchase my ticket online, go to the VIA Rail station with my reservation code and refund the amount of the gift card.

 I also asked about the difference in payment.   Robert was a little evasive at this point asking when I checked the prices on the web.  Apparently, VIA Rail lets prices float like the stock market up and down depending on demand.  I know the airlines do this as well letting popular times to travel increase in price as days go by and lower demand trips go down in price in hopes of putting buts in seats.  Standard industry practice.  But I was ready for this with the response of checking the price online at 6:50 P.M., 7:30 P.M. at the Ottawa Train Station and 7:50 P.M. again online at home with the same price.  Robert's response: "That can't be right" and promised to look into it.

Before hanging up, I asked again to walk me through ordering online using a gift card.  His response was exactly the same as the Ottawa VIA Rail station "IN-CHARGE" agent and Marie at VIA Rail Customer service.  Pay for your trip online using a credit card and then come to the station to have the Gift Card amount refunded.  I asked him again by using the analogy that I would purchase my ticket now and then, the day of travel, I would arrive and receive a refund of the gift card.  Robert's response of course was I was correct.

Before hanging up, I promised Roger that if the Gift Card refund did not occur, I would be working my way up the system of VIA Rail until I received my money back from the gift card purchase. Roger said he understood and we hung up.

I'm not sure what is up at VIA Rail.  They promote the ability to purchase gift cards on their website to business owners and others.  But on the same website indicate the only way to use a gift card towards a trip on VIA Rail is to purchase tickets at a VIA Rail station.  Not only can this be inconvenient for those across the country who do not live near the ever dwindling number of VIA Rail stations to get to, but VIA Rail charges customers a higher train fare at the station than provided online.  This results in customers being charged more to dutifully attend the train station as instructed by VIA's website and use their VIA issued gift card than if they bought the same ticket online with the same amount as a cash gift.  No where on the website that I could find was the method of purchasing the ticket online and then attending the station to get the gift card refunded.  But of course that was not ludicrous enough, let's remember VIA Rail's website doesn't accept VIA Rail issued gift cards in the first place.  This lack of ability to accept gift cards online is the whole reason many a VIA Rail passenger will be put through VIA Rail Gift Card Hell to get what they have duly paid for without a VIA Rail approved at station service fee.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Harvey's Makes your Hamburger a Beautiful Bronson Thing...

On Friday, I was looking for a hamburger with fries and a drink.  Just a simple "Yahoo it is Friday!" type of lunch to celebrate the end of a work week. I found a Harvey's (564 Bronson Avenue, Ottawa) to visit and headed over.

The Harvey's parking lot is tight two row parking lot fenced in with only access off of Arlington Avenue.  Sometimes this tightness can be problematic if there are two many vehicles trying to enter or exit the lot.  Not sure which expert designed this parking lot, but it does not work on a frequent basis with two fast food restaurants (the other a Burrito Gringo) sharing the same constrained lot.  Weekday lunch times are the worst as landscape trucks with trailers attempt to navigate the narrow one entrance and exit only at the same end of the lot.

Upon entering the Harvey's, the restaurant layout appears smaller than a more traditional suburban Harvey's space, yet there is more space than the downtown Harvey's found on Elgin Street.  A happy medium of space between the two.

I worked my way through the short line up to get to the counter and place my order

The Order: 1 Original Hamburger combo (medium fries and Pepsi)

I was gradually moved down to the topping and prep area of Harvey's to be served by an older lady.  She topped my burger from the standard issue Harvey's stainless steel topped counter along with the semi circle of bowls of toppings and bottles of whatever liquid goulash they have.

After topping my burger, she grabbed my fries and drink.  Next she inquired if I would like ketchup with my fries.  An odd question considering I was having my meal at the Harvey's.   I didn't think about it and said, yes please.  A couple of ketchup packets were added to my tray and I was off to the condiment station.

"Condiment station" is really a misnomer.  Are condiments at a burger place involve vinegar, ketchup and other "nice to haves" for the average person who have individual tastes?  Thus, I would call this Harvey's station the napkin and straw station.  Apparently fast food customers now cannot be trusted with dispensing their own ketchup anymore as more restaurants are moving to handing out prerationed ketchup packets.  It is like ketchup is becoming harder and harder to find.

I sat down at a decently clean table and dug into my burger.

The burger tasted just like any other Harvey's Original burger.  Along with the usual issue of the toppings slowly oozing out the end opposite to your mouth.    Why is it, no matter what Harvey's I visit, the toppings always seem to ooze out the other end and splat on the outstreched paper wrapper?  No matter if the Harvey's is in Ottawa, Aurora, Toronto or Timbucktoo, this happens.  It must be Harvey's corporate policy to ensure this happens.

The fries were the average Harvey's fries in standard proportions.  At least Harvey's seems to be keeping the size of their fries along with their combos the same size as opposed to shrinking them.  Temperature wise the fries were nothing special, but they were not frozen cold either.

Overall, this Harvey's is a standard run of the mill place.  Nothing special in terms of service or added value.  Just average corporate approved levels of service.  If there was something they could do about the parking lot by adding another entrance/exit and perhaps loosing the wrot iron fence, this Harvey's would be "... Beautiful Thing" to get into and out of.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Surprise at the Pump

While my family was visiting from Toronto a couple of weeks ago, we decided the last meal before they returned, a brunch, would be at Lieutenant's Pump Pub (361 Elgin Street, Ottawa).

We tried calling ahead to make a reservation as our group would be eight people including a small child.  The response was "we do not take reservations after 10 A.M.".

I could understand the no reservations after 10, as I know "The Pump" can be a busy brunch place on weekends.  Nothing disturbs people more than a large empty table with the little "reserved" sign on it while the place is lined up out the door.

I hung up the phone dejectedly and explained the situation to my family.  We decided to try for Lieutenant's Pump anyway in hopes the line up wouldn't be too long.

We arrived at 11 A.M. as per the original reservation attempt.  The entrance is a set of stairs about six steps down before reaching the hostess' podium.

We told the hostess how many there were, 8 including the toddler.   We were promised a fifteen minute wait.  Pretty good timing so far considering we still had two stragglers who were circling the block trying to find parking.   So fifteen minutes later we were all there with the toddler surrounded by 3 ladies who he had no clue who they were.  My nephew is already such a ladies man.

I didn't watch the clock at all while watching either the people walk by on Elgin Street or my nephew waiving at anyone who would look his way.  Good thing this entertainment was going on, cause it was apparently 45 minutes before we were sat down.  I did not have a clue how long until later.  The hostess, to her credit, had kept us updated with the usual bait of "it won't be long now as we are just waiting on one table to pay their bill" and "we are just cleaning the table for you".  Normally, these lines are used to keep up the hope of the prospective customers instead of letting them think they should turn around and head elsewhere.

I had started to think about heading across the street to the Elgin Street Diner which I had previously been to before that was across the street and up a block. The service there is usually fast and the food was good.  But would they be able to take a party of 8?   I knew Zak's in the market had booths large enough for 8 people but the volume of people on a Sunday is usually similar to "The Pump" so a similar wait would be undertaken.  Hmmm...

Before I could think anymore we were called and led to our table and handed menus.  Before we could order, the owner stopped by and apologized for the wait time.  I'm not sure if he knew we had attempted to make a reservation that morning.  He seemed to feel his staff had let us down by making us wait so long.  He apologized again and said the meal would be on the house and left.

This was a first for me, no manager had ever given out free meals to the entire table.  Sure we I have seen meals comped at other restaurants when something went wrong.  Usually it was because a dish was cold or a side was wrong and the replacement meal seem to take twice as long as it should to get there.

Reading through the menu I discovered my old favourite at "The Pump", the Turkey sandwich on a croissant with home fries.  Mmm..... good.   Add to this my wife's big breakfast that she can't possibly finish so she needs help and I'm good to go with additional toast, fruit and even more delicious home fries! CHACHING!  
The food was as good as ever at The Pump and the waitress provided timely service with a well run kitchen backing her up.  Food was brought out within ten minutes of ordering, drinks were refilled on a timely manner and we all had a good time including the toddler for the most part.

The toddler was a little grumpy at times and I felt a little guilty at his noise and squirming.  A quick look over at the next table over from us and smile was returned from the parents of another toddler slightly older reminiscing about what is was like for their own son at that age.  The two university age ladies on the other side didn't even bat an eyelash and continued their conversation.

We finished our meals and the plates were gradually being ushered back to the kitchen by the friendly wait staff.  We conferred with the waitress about the owner's gesture on the bill.  Yes the entire meal was at the compliments of The Lieutenant's Pump Pub.  

This left us in somewhat consternation about the tip.  Do we tip for the service on a free meal?  The answer was unanimously yes. But without a bill or receipt, what do you base your calculation of a tip on?  Hmmmm....we settled on a generous tip of $60.00 and pulled everything together.  We called the waitress over and presented the money to her.

The waitress had a big smile on her face and again apologized for the wait.  We responded that despite the wait, we had a good time at the restaurant, the service was good and the food was excellent.  Please share the money with everyone involved.

Sometimes there are mistakes at restaurants.  Sure every business, no matter what industry they are in, makes a mistake or something doesn't go right that should have in the first place.  The sign of good restaurant is how it bounces back from these situations in an attempt to keep the customer on side.   The Lieutenant's Pump could have given us empty platitudes of apologies and understanding without backing these up with action.  It could have also given us a 10% discount or something similar on our overall bill.  But free meals for the entire table of eight was very generous.  I could not help but leaving The Lieutenant's Pump Pub that day without feeling happy.  Happy that my family had visited, happy I was full of good food, but most of all, impressed that a possibly bad situation was handled so well and turned into a positive.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Gabriel Delivers!

Saturday evening, with family arrived from a celebration near Brockville, there was only thing to turn to get a lot of food in a timely manner.  On the trip back to Ottawa from Brockville, I was asked what my favourite pizza was?  Pizzaville came up, Pizza Pizza, and Pizza Hut also were mentioned. I replied Gabriel Pizza was one of my favourites in the Ottawa area as I had it previously and enjoyed it.

The talk of pizza on the way back resulted from the need to get delivery as we had just had a road trip back with a just less than a year old who was probably going to be grumpy.  This meant at least his parents would not be able to join us at, lets say, a restaurant meal out at a pub downtown.  So pizza it was.

We called Gabriel's Pizza (2660 Alta Vista Drive, Ottawa)  to order. The call was picked up in a timely manner.  We first mentioned we had coupons for medium pizza that were received in the mail.  We were told to have them ready for the driver.  Next we placed our order.

The Order: 1 Medium Regular Crust pizza with Bacon, Pepperoni and Mushroom, 1 Medium thin crust pizza with spinach, Feta cheese, Red Peppers and Extra Sauce and 1 Medium regular crust pizza with Pineapple and Ham.

The downfall, was we had to wait 45 minutes for the pizza's to be made and delivered.  We reluctantly said that was fine realizing it was a Saturday night and most pizza places would have a significant wait.

The driver arrived at 35 minutes with the three medium pizzas.  He was prepared with the Visa credit card machine and was off to his next run.  We didn't feel rushed at all and he never made it seem like it was on the clock.

We opened the pizzas to find three hot and obviously cheesy pizzas. The remarks were pretty forthcoming that all the pizzas ordered had a lot cheese on them.  Good thing the cheese was of excellent quality, otherwise the meal would have gone south pretty quickly.

The bacon, pepperoni and mushroom pizza was delicious.  The mushrooms pizza and sauce were fresh.  I'm not sure about how freshly prepared the bacon was before it was put on the pizza, but it was not terrible.

The same with the other two pizzas.  Lots of cheese with fresh toppings added. A knife was definitely required to extricate each of the slices due to the cheesyness of the pizzas.

Overall, Gabriel Pizza provides a high quality pizza at a slightly more expensive price than the average neighbourhood pizza parlour.  But  the added quality ingredients and the quality customer service experience is worth it.  Gabriel's delivers quality pizza on time and, if needed, right to your door.

O'er the Bridge to Tim Hortons We Go

Needing a place to wait for someone convenint to Highway 401 after spending half a day perusing historic Downtown Brockville can be a bit of a challenge.  Sure, I had lunch, but I was still in the need of an afternoon snack.  I worked my way up William Street past the historic Leeds and Grenville County Courthouse towards the bridge over the main Toronto to Montreal CN Rail Tracks.  I stopped short of the rail bridge at William and Brock Streets where a shiny new Tim Hortons (77 William Street, Brockville).

This Tim Hortons is a perfect spot to meet someone coming from out of town along Highway 401.  Just south of the railway tracks close to downtown Brockville yet, just north of the railway tracks after William Street turns into the Stewart Boulevard, is the exit from Highway 401.

I entered at 1 P.M. to wait for my father who was working his way east from Toronto to pick me up.  The Tim Hortons is part of the chain's new modern look with comfy seating and modern look.

The line up was decent length but moved forward frequently. The cashier welcomed me with a smile and inquired of what I wished to order.

The Order: 1 Boston Cream donut and 1 Medium Black Coffee

While the cashier was about to get my Boston Cream, a supervisor walked by and warned her the Boston Creams had just come out of the back, thus, the chocolate might still be soft and stickier than normal.  The cashier looked back at me quizzically as she hadn't asked if I wanted my order "for here" or "to go".  If  it was the latter, she was in trouble, the to go packaging would be stuck to chocolate and I would later have to carefully extract the donut while losing half of the chocolate.  This is typical of Tim Hortons' takeout packaging even when the Boston Cream isn't fresh.  Not sure how this issue can be overcome.

Fortunately, I was going to be at this Tim Hortons for at least fifteen to thirty minutes.  So I said "For Here!" on the donut.  This meant a small plate could used to serve up the donut and preserve the life of the chocolate.

My coffee was poured in "To Go" cup just as requested.  I like to sip my coffee, and without knowing if I was going to be at the Tim Hortons fifteen minutes or longer it was tough to tell.

The coffee was the same great Tim Hortons' quality.  The donut was indeed Tim Hortons' fresh as well.  This latter part is not really "fresh" per say as Tim Hortons years ago moved to a central bakery where the donuts are made and not in the stores.  So "fresh" at Tim Hortons comes down to "how long ago were the donuts defrosted" as opposed to the old days of "when was the batter made?" But I digress.

Overall, this Tim Hortons location is convenient to Highway 401 with decent service and cleanliness. Located just to the north of the old Highway 2, Brockville's King Street, it is a centrally located franchise location with a modern feel and look.  Best part is on summer days you could probably watch the trains go by from the north side of this Tim Hortons or do so while walking o'er the bridge as you sip your double double.

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