Monday, June 05, 2006

We're Back

We took a brief trip last week -- to the Philadelphia area, actually to Bryn Mawr, where Grace attended a Future Search conference at the American College's Gregg Conference Center. We had three nights at the Radnor Hotel there, which was quite a decent place, even without a free breakfast. They had decent coffee -- the blessed bean, juice of life, which was enough to get me out of the building in the mornings.

It was not quite the vacation I dream about, for me at least -- staying in a hotel in a strange suburb looking after the kids -- but we managed to have a reasonably good time.

The trip ate some money. Staying in a hotel is always a teeth-gritting affair, financially. They pre-authorized $400 when we checked in, then another $150 on Saturday when we checked out. Then today they charged us for the "settlement," the actual total, which was $527.56. Usually by the time you get your monthly bank statements the pre-auths and credits have been collapsed down to just the final charge, but it means that the hotel actually charged us, if only briefly, over twice the actual cost of our stay.

It isn't just the Radnor; most hotels work this way. A decade ago on a business trip I had $1200 "pre-authed" for a $400 bill, which resulted in $1600 in total charges when I checked out, and the $1200 was not reimbursed for another week. That big pre-auth charge, meant that the night after I checked in, when I tried to pay for dinner, my credit card was rejected. That's when I learned about this particular practice.

I was royally screwed for the remainder of that trip, which was a business trip where I expected to submit receipts and get reimbursed in order to pay the credit card bill. Instead I had to take the money out of my checking account to pay for food in a strange city, which afterwards resulted in the dreaded bounce-a-check, pay-a-big-overdraft-fee, then bounce another check because the fee ate the money that would have covered that check... repeat, racking up several hundred dollars in bank fees... the eventual reimbursements from my employer didn't help with those fees or the stress caused by having your credit card declined at a restaurant.

Fortunately the Radnor didn't pre-authorize $1200, but since our credit card is not really a credit card, but our checking account, this can still pose a problem. Sometimes that "pre-auth" charge isn't released for a few days. The Radnor's posted policy says that it could take 72 hours. Fortunately they (or their bank) immediately released the $400 right after completing the settlement for $527.56, so we were only down $1077.56 for a brief time, but the $150 has not been refunded yet.

I deposited a paycheck on Sunday, which was processed this morning, and it is in there as a deposit, but not part of the "available balance" -- another complication and another way that you can get screwed. We know that our bank processes pending deposits at the end of the day before determining that the account is overdrawn. Not all banks do this. In fact it seems that by law while banks can now clear checks you write in a day or less, electronically, they can hold up your deposits (which, like everything else, is also done electronically, and so should not require any longer) by three days, seven days, or even longer. Yes, the law is written in favor of banks and their huge bounce fees and their ability to arbitrarily delay your deposits; are you surprised?

They were a good hotel -- they cleaned up the spot where Veronica peed on the floor very nicely; they replaced our phone, which Vera broke. (The switch-hook stopped working after she played with it for a while, but she was not violent with it, she was just trying to talk on it. That seems like a pretty flimsy phone. Remember when you could kill someone with a phone without damaging the phone?)

But even if we get out financially un-screwed this time, I really don't like the pre-auth, settlement, and credit system at all. Transactions should be atomic. Let them charge me once, on check-in, or at the close of business each day I stay there. None of this holding my checking account hostage in case I steal towels.

Anyway, while we were hanging out in Bryn Mawr, I helped Isaac build a tensegrity structure, as described in issue 6 of Make magazine. I didn't know where anything was, so it took us a long time to find the hardware we wanted. The first try involved cutting some dowels with a circular saw in the musty basement of a hardware store under a flickering light bulb while the proprietor held them for me; that didn't work out very well. We drove quite some way to find an A. C. Moore craft store, which had pre-cut dowels and the right kind of stretchy plastic cord. We were supposed to use eye hooks that could be opened slightly, to allow us to hook the loops onto them after the loops were tied, but we could not find enough of them, so we made do.

I didn't want to buy Isaac a drill, and the drilling was very light. What I wanted was an electric screwdriver and drill bits that would fit it. What I bought (accidentally) at a Home Depot was a cheap 75-piece set supposedly for electric screwdrivers which has a lot of driver bits and a bunch of regular drill bits, with some kind of adapter which turned out to be a magnetic guide, not a drill bit holder -- yes, the accessory kit for electric screwdrivers came with a whole bunch of drill bits that won't work in an electric screwdriver. Brilliant.

We wound up drilling some holes by hand with the bit wrapped in tape, which was pretty stupid but worked, until the next day when after three more hardware stores and a couple hours more of driving, I found a place called Dave's Hardware, where Dave himself sold me a little adapter chuck that would let us use our drill bits. That was a great store, crowded with stuff, and Dave knew exactly where everything was. The other local stores were mostly appalling, and the staff downright surly.

The driving was a bit of a waste, although it wasn't like we had much else to do but explore the area. I only got badly lost once, which I thought was pretty good given how far we drove. I can also recommend Title Page Books in Bryn Mawr -- we found some neat things there, and the people working there were very friendly. I bought more books than I should have and we spent more on the craft project than we should have -- certainly more than we would have needed to spend if we had done it at home. None of the food we ate in the area was particularly memorable, although the Radnor does pretty good room service. We did get to attend the Future Search party, which was great fun. (They had live jazz and great food).

On the last day after Grace's conference ended, we drove to visit an intentional community, Tanguy Homesteads, and met a friendly resident there. On the way out of town we made a brief stop at Ikea in Coshocton -- well, actually it is almost impossible to stay only briefly in an Ikea -- to examine some things we might buy for our apartment when the Ikea in Canton opens. (Grace wonders: is Ikea really just the Wal-Mart of people who think they are morally superior to Wal-Mart shoppers?)

We didn't get on the road until 5:30 p.m., and decided to drive all the way to Ann Arbor, which put us home at about 4:30 a.m. My back is still cramped up. I need to get back to the gym tonight.

Vera was a real trooper -- she was quite a contented baby for most of the trip, and she had to put up with a _lot_ of time in her car seat. Isaac was not quite so patient and helpful, and tended to drift into outer space, but he survived all right. I did most of the driving. I'm glad we had most of Sunday to recover and unpack. And now we're back!

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