Before our trip, I used Google Earth and Google extensively to plan our trip. Using Google, I found out the train schedule and the address where it arrives in Chicago. In Google Earth, I visited layers to find out where the mass transit lines ran and where the stops were located. I even used layers to search for various sites that I might want to visit or places that we might want to eat. Because we wanted to make this a vehicle free vacation of sorts, I visited the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) website in order to glean hints on how traveling via their system, something I have never done before, might be.
From what I read, many of the train stations were unmanned or only manned during regular hours and not likely to have someone around after 8:00 in the evening when we had been planning on catching the train to our hotel. Although the literature said that most stations had machines to dispense transit cards, there system sounded confusing. I had to buy the card first for $5 and then add money to it as needed with either a credit card or cash. If I chose the cash, I had to always put more money on it with cash. If I chose credit card, I could only add more money online. Since I wanted to avoid computers and relying on moneychangers or having proper change with me when necessary might cause problems, neither option was particularly attractive to me.
So I searched and found an online site where CTA sold precharged cards. Most of the cards required a minimum amount of $20, which meant ten rides at $2 per use plus a $5 card fee for a total of $25 per card. Though still cheaper than parking a vehicle for three days, I had hoped for a better option. Finally after searching for awhile, I settled on buying a ten pack of single use cards for $17.50 figuring that if by some chance we both used up 10 rides on the transit, we would be familiar enough with the system to add some more to a card.
About three weeks before our trip the cards arrived in the mail and while we were inspecting them, my wife noticed that there was an expiration date on the back of each card that read July 1, 2005. So I called up CTA and learned that the cards were not valid and that I needed to get replacement cards. I was transferred to the extension of a man who of course wasn't in his office. I tried calling several times hoping to reach someone who was actually in the office answering the phones but all roads seemed to lead to this man and he wasn't picking up. During one of my spells on hold, the background music gave way to a cheerful electronic voice stating that fares would be rising in a couple days and that they were sorry for the inconvenience. So when I got a human voice, I asked that should I somehow get to speak to a real live human and get some replacement cards sent to me, would they be valid after the rate hike? She said that I would have to add $0.25 to every card in order to use them. For reasons mentioned above, this sounded like something I wanted to avoid. I finally ended up at the man not answering his phone and left a message.
Not knowing how long it would take to get this resolved, I went back to the drawing board and started searching the internet. This time by chance, I took a different route and found a CTA website that sold vacation passes in various durations good for unlimited rides on trains or buses during the entire duration. I bought two 3-day vacation passes for $12 each that started keeping track of the time only after I had used it the first time. We used these passes during our 3-day stay in Chicago and never had a bit of trouble with them and I would highly recommend them to others. However if you are going to Chicago often enough, I recommend buying the heavier duty card for $5 and charging it online with your credit card. Our cards were flimsy and wouldn't last long in a pocket or wallet.
My story doesn't end there. Several days after leaving my phone message and buying the vacation passes, I heard back from the man who doesn't answer his phone. I explained my situation for the 40th time and he said that he would have replacement passes mailed priority overnight. When I told him that I had already purchased replacements due to my impending vacation departure time, he said that I could just get a refund. I told him that would be nice and we parted ways. Yet my story doesn't end there either. After getting back from our vacation, I received yet another call from the man who never answered the phone asking me to send back the expired cards in order to get my refund. Cards that I had simply tossed into the trash after receiving my 3-day vacation passes.
I called him back yet again, surprising he answered the phone, and explained the situation and inquired why they wanted expired cards back, especially when I had already read the ten serial numbers off the back previously when they wanted to verify that they were indeed expired? After beating around the bush for a while, he finally agreed that he would go ahead and process my refund if I would just fax him some form. I said that this was the 21rst century and I didn't have a fax. Finally he agreed that if I send an email stating my case to his email address and that would be sufficient. Then he said he didn't have departmental email and that I would have to send the email to his yahoo account. I haven't got my credit card statement back yet to determine if I have successfully got a refund or not but I have to wonder what kind of outfit this CTA is and why they only seem to have about four employees?
Despite the hassles, buying the cards online in advance I feel was a very smart move. They were easy to move and being unlimited uses within a three-day period, I got my money's worth. I once even had to pay the same fare again because I mistakenly walked out on the street looking for my transfer and had to pay to get back in. But that is another story for another day.