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.

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