On a recent three-day weekend, I flew from Portland, Ore. to Oakland, Calif. to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. We were both motivated to keep costs down, so we cooked at home and went on walks. The entire trip, including my ticket, was $300.
As I was waiting at the gate to fly home, an airline rep got on the intercom and announced that the flight was overbooked. She offered a $300 travel voucher to travelers willing to take a flight just two hours later. I knew that I’d be flying home for the holidays, so I decided that it was well worth the wait to essentially recoup my costs for the weekend. I volunteered and sat back down, content with a $300 voucher and a ticket on the next flight back to Portland.
But somehow in the confusion, the agent rebooked me to Seattle. By the time my original plane was rolling away from the gate and I was explaining that I didn’t want to go to Seattle, there were no more seats on the flight for which I volunteered. I was put on a standby list for the booked flight and on the list for another later flight, also booked. They also offered to fly me to Seattle where I could try to get on a plane to Portland, or to stay in a hotel and fly in the morning, but I just wanted to get home.
The gate agents were visibly stressed, so I waited and texted my best friend, my roommate, and my mom with the little battery I had left on my phone. My best friend provided me with the opportunity to gossip about my roommate and my trip while my mom texted me advice about the situation, which annoyed me. The agent came up to me and apologized for the mistake, saying she’d see if she could give me more benefits for the inconvenience. My mom told me to ask for more money on my travel voucher, but I wasn’t quite comfortable doing that.
It’s pretty common knowledge that women are taught to nurture relationships in lieu of being taught to aggressively negotiate on our own behalf. We lose out when it comes to salary negotiations. Despite all the interviews I’ve done, research I’ve read about the pay gap, and books about negotiation and the gender divide, I still find myself cripplingly inarticulate when it comes to asking directly for what I want.
I waited in front of the gate for the other volunteers to get their tickets rebooked. Watching their situations play out, I thought about how the men in my life take advantage of my willingness to compromise my needs and desires in order to accommodate their insecurities and immaturity. I thought about how I will have to negotiate with my boss about my job and salary in the very near future.
And then I explained to the agent that the late night flight, if I could even get on it, would mean another six hours at the airport, plus an arrival in Portland after the MAX, Portland’s public train system, closed. She immediately offered me $20 in food vouchers for dinner, which I accepted. I asked if I could be moved to the top of the standby list for the next available flight and explained once again that I didn’t want to arrive after public transit stopped running. They told me the standby list can’t be rigged. While the agents were busy clicking away at their consoles, I looked down at my phone and saw one of my mom’s texts again: “Ask for cab fare.”
So I did. It turns out they couldn’t issue a fare voucher for a taxi at a different airport, but they did give me another $10 in food vouchers. Regardless, I was proud of myself; I had directly asked, “Can I get money for a taxi?” I stopped explaining my situation and started asking for what I wanted. I smiled and thanked them sincerely. As I was walking away, the agent blurted out, “Wait! Actually, there may be a way we can do this.”
She pulled up my traveler info and started annotating my entry. She explained in five lines of shorthand that I was bumped by her error and that upon arrival in Portland after midnight, the customer service agents from the airline should issue me a travel voucher. I was delighted.
I spent my food money on chicken strips, bottled water, a slice of cheesecake, and a large hot cocoa. The food was exactly the quality you’d expect in an airport, which ruined my “negotiator’s high” and made me feel fat. I walked around the terminal and meandered over to that flight I had originally volunteered for and check out the standby list.
I went over to the gate agent to ask about the standby list. Feeling I had nothing to lose, I explained everything that happened and asked what he thought my chances were of getting on. He said it wasn’t likely, but we made small talk about moving; he had just relocated to San Francisco with his boyfriend. He asked me if I was flying into Portland for a meeting the next day and I joked, “No, but Girltopia at C.C. Slaughter’s is tomorrow night!”
Two hours after the scheduled departure time, the original flight to Portland was still in the gate due to weather, and I was dead last on the standby list. I was restless and annoyed at being in the airport, sure that I had hours to go even if the next flight didn’t get delayed, too.
I was paged on the intercom. They found a seat for me on that original flight.
I thanked the gate attendant as I gave him my ticket and he said, “Well, my coworker said you were just so nice to him that we had to find you a seat on this plane.” Asking for things certainly seemed to be paying off. Why hadn’t I been doing this my whole life?
I arrived in Portland around 10:30 p.m. As I was walking over to catch the MAX, it occurred to me that the agents in Portland would still have my taxi fare request on file. I walked up to the nearest airline representative and explained that the SFO agents had put in a request on my file. He looked it up and said it was really out of the ordinary to have a fare request from another airport, but that it might be something he could do. As we waited for the computer to load my information, we made small talk about the weather. Then we made small talk about small talk about the weather, which I’ve discovered is the formula for nearly all conversations in Portland. He seemed happy that someone was willing to talk to him about something other than flight delays.
In the end, I made it onto the flight I volunteered for with a full belly and $300 dollars towards my next flight. I even got a taxi from the airport—something I don’t think I’ve ever actually done before. I’d originally planned to get home at 8 p.m.—I managed to get there at 11 p.m. All it took was an extra three hours and a mostly pain-free lesson in learning to ask for what I want.
Liz Rush is an amateur cartoonist who recently relocated to Portland, Oregon. She makes $15/hour and has $7,353 left to pay on her student loan. Her go-to karaoke song is “Mr. Roboto” by Styx.