TCS Daily

A Tale of Two Tickets

By Ilya Shapiro - January 31, 2005 12:00 AM

ON THE ACELA, Jan. 23 -- On the eve of New Year's Eve I found myself in Buenos Aires, enjoying a vacation to my favorite city and a summery respite from the chilly Northeast. Three weeks later, I was in New York on a business trip that would coincide with The Blizzard of 2005. These two seemingly unrelated travel experiences ended up showcasing how American bureaucracy at its worst still manages to best much of what foreigners have to deal with in their daily lives.

From the time I studied there in college, Buenos Aires had infected me with its irresistible style of life, the passion and vibrancy, the blend of Latin America and Europe (and New York from the 1930s). To paraphrase an old fútbol chant, Argentina is a sensation that entered my soul and wouldn't let me go. Now, as work in the office slowed down for the holidays, I got in touch with some friends in that part of the world and, thanks to the magic of online ticket consolidators, booked a last-minute trip.

Upon my arrival in the city that truly does not sleep -- dinner starts at midnight, and a good night out ends just in time to start work -- one of my friends decided that she wanted to spend New Year's in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Punta del Este -- or "Punta" as it's called locally -- is the playground of the Argentine elite, the beautiful and powerful people. (If Uruguay is the "Switzerland of South America" and B.A. the "Paris," Punta is clearly St. Tropez.)

I too had long intended to visit the "Oriental Republic" and had planned nearly a week of touring both the Punta beaches and the small communities along the coast toward Brazil. So I went with my friend to the Buquebus ferry terminal to buy tickets for the river crossing; she was going to Montevideo and I would take the one-hour shuttle to Colonia a few days later.

My friend already had a ticket in someone else's name, so she just had to put it in hers (they're transferable). She'll end up waiting for me, I thought, but in any event we'd be done in twenty minutes, tops, and could return to the neighborhood Palermo Hollywood for some chorizo and vino tinto.

So I checked the schedule and got in the line for Ventas (sales), which had one ticketing agent working of the five or six available booths. It was a quick-moving line, at least, and by the time I showed the mousy attendant my passport -- it's an international trip, sort of -- and indicated my preferred voyage, only fifteen minutes had elapsed.

I wasn't done yet, however, as this exercise only input my information into the computer system and I would have to go to the Caja (cashier) to pay for and receive the ticket. That would only take another fifteen minutes -- they had two cashiers open -- and I was free to meet my friend, who was no doubt waiting for me.

Well, she was waiting impatiently, but not for me. It turns out that, upon inquiring with customer service, she had been told to take a number. When she finally got to the agent's desk, she was told that, given the "unusual" nature of her request, she would have to take another number and wait for the manager.

So we waited another half hour or so, and when she was called again, we cleverly decided that I would go wait in the (now much longer) Ventas line again, in case she would have to buy another ticket or some such. We guessed right: her discussion with the manager resulted in a voucher good for a new ticket (minus a 30% handling fee), to be obtained in the regular manner.

So we waited another while, and then I left to wait in line, to speed up the process as we had before. To make a long story a tad shorter, we ended up spending nearly two hours at the Buquebus terminal, and had waited in a total of six lines (plus a couple more to get basic information upon entering), for two tickets -- one of which had in theory already been purchased.

It was like something out of the old Soviet Union, where one had to go to no less than three lines to buy whatever scraps of food or consumer products were available on that particular day. (One to get a ticket for the brown Bulgarian shoes that were only available in the wrong size, one to pay for them, and the third to pick them up -- plus the time spent outside the shop to barter them for the tomatoes that a Kazakh farmer had flown up in his suitcase.)

Contrast that experience with my more recent purchase of a round-trip ticket on Amtrak's Acela "Express": I showed up at Washington's Union Station half an hour before the train was scheduled to depart and bought my ticket in one of the automated kiosks (none of which had a line of people behind it). Total time: two and a half minutes.

Of course, changing an Amtrak ticket would have taken longer, so my friend's experience with Buquebus is a bit of a straw man. Still the difference in time between the equivalent transactions is greater even than the difference between the number of words needed to describe the two ticket-purchasing excursions.

And so, as I return two hours late to our nation's capital, and hesitate to say anything good about our cash-hemorrhaging inefficiency of a common carrier, I remind myself to put things into perspective. For all its warts, Amtrak is still a heckuva lot better on many little things than what you find in badly operated public-private consortia around the world.

It's not as good as anything in Europe or Japan as far as train service goes, but at least the overpriced tickets for irregular service are muy fácil to buy.

Ilya Shapiro is a lawyer and writer living in Washington, D.C. He last wrote for TCS about the proper place for politics in the judiciary


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