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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lake Express High Speed Ferry

Previous experiences
Before I write about this trip, I wanted to provide some information about my past experiences on the Lake Express. When the Lake Express first started 10 years ago, my husband and I were keeping a boat at Great Lakes Marina, next to where the Lake Express docks in Muskegon, Michigan. We are boat and water lovers, so we thought the trip to Milwaukee and back sounded like fun. I, however, thought it was too expensive. We both really wanted to try it, so we booked a classic one-night roundtrip leaving Muskegon on a Friday morning. Our ride there and back was a good experience. I was able to get us a free hotel room in Milwaukee with points, so this made the cost more tolerable. We easily got a cab ride to town after our arrival in Milwaukee.

A year or two after that trip, I took two premier roundtrips by myself when I was working in Milwaukee for two summer weeks. Since the Lake Express docks next to Great Lakes Marina, our summer home at that time, I was able to easily walk to the boat dock and back. Although the cost of the Lake Express is expensive compared to other leisure or water crossing trips, it is relatively inexpensive compared to flying. I was able to rent a car for two weeks at the port in Milwaukee, and then park it in their rental lot over the weekend when I went home. When I returned the second Monday, I went straight to my car after disembarking. 

The Lake Express website lists complimentary non-alcoholic beverages for premier class. I had thought my boarding pass was good for only one complimentary beverage when I traveled back then. Since my travel was almost 10 years ago, it is likely that has changed, or that I do not recall correctly. I do recall that one of my crossings from Muskegon at that time was not comfortable. The entire boat reeked of vomit. I said something to one of the employees about the stench, and she said that many people had gotten sick on the boat the day before. I understand that something like that could happen; however, I do not understand that the boat was not thoroughly cleaned before the next passengers boarded. It does not seem like it would have been that difficult to hire this out overnight. Fortunately, the stench was gone when I returned three days later.

Following is our most recent experience.

July 2013, Thursday, one-way for two adults and one vehicle, 7:00 p.m. departure
Milwaukee to Muskegon
On Tuesday afternoon before our trip, we were in Sheboygan, Wisconsin after we had taken the SS Badger over from Ludington, Michigan. My cell phone rang from a toll-free number, although it did not connect when I tried to answer it. Later that evening, after we had checked into our hotel, I did a search for the telephone number online, and found that it belonged to the Lake Express.

I called the Lake Express, and said that it looked like someone had tried to call me, and that I had not received the call. The agent learned that we had a reservation for Thursday. She said that passengers were being called with a recorded message, because all trips through Friday were being canceled because of mechanical trouble. When I asked when we could make the trip back across, she said that she could re-book us for Sunday. I said that would be too late for us, since I had to be home before then (I had an early morning flight on Monday). She did not offer us any other option, until I pressed her for a better solution. She then said that I could call back on Wednesday to see if the boat would be running on Friday. She never apologized for the inconvenience, she never requested our confirmation number or name, and she never asked if we had a vehicle to get home.

I called back the next day, and asked if it was possible to rebook our canceled Thursday booking for Friday. The employee provided the same Sunday rebooking date, with the same kind of service that I had received the first time I called: The employee did not apologize for the inconvenience, she did not request our name or confirmation number, and she did not ask if we had a vehicle to get home. At this point, we realized we were going to have to drive home. I then asked what the Lake Express was going to do to compensate us for this, and the agent said that we would be getting a refund. I asked if that was all, and she said yes.

After we got back to Michigan, I happened to be in Muskegon on Saturday. I observed the Lake Express arrive, and the boat did not look full. If the boat was not full, I wondered why no one had called us to see if we still needed to get across. We were back in Michigan by then; however, the Lake Express did not know that.

The way a company handles a situation like this is going to determine whether customers will remain customers. The Lake Express has lost me and others as future customers because of the way they handled this situation. I expected them to at least apologize and assist me with a new way to get to my destination. If this had happened to me when I was working in Milwaukee on my prior trip, or when we took our leisure trip for one night without a vehicle, we would have been in an even worse situation. I did not speak personally with other passengers from trips canceled this week, although I did hear stories of passengers trying to book one-way rental cars at the airport to get home.

I will not book a future trip with the Lake Express because of the way this cancelation was handled. I depend on the companies that I book transportation with (air, boat, train, bus, etc.) to get me where I need to go. I can not afford to put my trust in a company that is not going to take care of me if something goes wrong.

There were two things about the way the Lake Express handled this situation that really bothered me:

First, The Lake Express used an automated system to call customers about the cancelation, without making sure that the calls were received. I do not know anything about how these automated systems work. Don't they have a way to track whether a call was actually received and/or connected to confirm that messages are delivered? If I was using a service like that, I would want to know that it was working. Since I did not receive the call, I do not know what the message said, and I told both employees that we did not receive the call. If I had not looked up the telephone number online, and then called, we would not have known that our trip had been canceled until we arrived at the Milwaukee harbor Thursday evening.

Second, the employees I spoke with did not apologize or make any attempt to assist us. Since no one ever asked for the details of our reservation, they did not know how many were in our party, whether we had a vehicle, and whether this was the first leg of our trip.

I think at the very minimum, the Lake Express should have apologized for the inconvenience, and offered to make amends. This was not a trip that canceled due to something beyond their control, such as weather. The trips this week were canceled for mechanical reasons. Along with showing some empathy and assistance, a discount on a future trip, would have made us willing to try the Lake Express again.