When Travel Plans Go Belly Up!
We have just returned from an amazing month long vacation. I have so many photographs and stories to share but I beg you for your patience just a little longer as I really do feel I need to share with you the rather unpleasant experiences that book-ended our splendid adventure.
Life isn’t always easy and the rose tinted glasses must come off from time to time. Even here on the blog. You see, Dear Reader, things did not go all that smoothly. In fact, as I look back now, with a cooler head and a little sleep, I believe that what could go wrong did, in fact, go wrong.
We arrived on time to check in to our flight from Ottawa to Newark (the first leg of three), only to be told that due to heavy storms in Newark all flights had been canceled. We asked if there was a later flight but nothing was available. We would, it seemed, miss our flight from Newark to Geneva and thus our connection from Geneva to Athens.
This was not good.
Frantically, the airline assistant tried to find another way to get us to Athens as soon as possible. We could leave in two hours via Heathrow, said the young woman. Mom’s eyebrows went up. “Not with a dog, we can’t!” I could hear the irritation in Mom’s voice. The airline assistant should have known that the UK does not allow any animal to fly into the country.
“Well then, I can’t help you. The only thing I have leaves in 2 days,” said the woman.
Mom pulled out her phone and called Danielle, our amazing travel agent. Mom told Danielle what was happening and put her on speaker phone. Together, the United Airlines agent and Danielle found a way to get us to Athens. The down side? We were leaving the next day. We would lose a day of vacation and as a result, would also lose a non-refundable hotel night in Athens.
But the weather gods had spoken and nothing else could be done. At least it was just one day lost.
We returned home (adding extra taxi fare to the mounting financial losses) and Mom was really quiet. Dad suddenly realized that it wasn’t just disappointment that had silenced her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“We have been routed via Munich,” Mom answered.
“Yes and …?” responded Dad.
“We don’t have papers for Montecristo for Germany, hon. I have the papers for Switzerland and I have EU form 998 in Greek and English but not in German and English. I have no idea what is going to happen when we try to clear customs in Munich.”
Dad and Mom were super quiet. This was indeed a problem. What to do?
Mom then decided she would simply print the form in German and English (thanks to our resource page we had easy access to that form!) and hope that the customs officer would understand. After all, the information is exactly the same, just the language is different. The German/English form could thus act as a translation document to the Greek/English form, if needed.
The next day, we left on time from Ottawa to Washington (Dullus Airport). I enjoyed the indoor potty availability at Dullus and things were looking up. And then … our flight from Washington was delayed and we left two hours late. We would miss our connecting flight from Munich to Athens.
As we sat on the plane, Mom’s silence grew. Now we had not only the customs issue to deal with in Munich but we also had no idea if we would make it to Athens that day.
When we landed, we made our way to the customs desk. Mom and Dad gave their passports and I sat quiet as a mouse in my bag. The German customs officer stamped the passports and waved us through. He did not mention me at all. Not wanting to test their luck, the bipeds said nothing and moved along. We are guessing he did not see me. And in this case, we were not about to point it out.
Breathing a little lighter, we made our way to the Lufthansa help desk to see about getting to Athens. Mom was really tired, her nerves a little on edge. Dad did all he could to soothe her. Luckily Mom speaks German and when our turn came, she explained everything that had happened. The lady working the desk took pity on us and worked frantically to find a solution. She booked us on the earliest flight to Athens the next morning.
The bipeds were gutted. Now two days – and the entire stay in Athens – were completely lost. And now, with our arrival time being still later, we would also lose our pre-booked and paid ferry ticket to Santorini. Mom’s eyes welled up, but she took a deep breath, thanked the lady and asked about a voucher for a hotel night.
The lady replied in flawless English, “Wait for the hotel voucher. I have put you on standby for the flight to Athens that leaves in 3 hours. So you might still make it. Everything is overbooked so I can’t make a promise but you could get lucky. The list isn’t long. We try, yes? If no, you come back to see me and I give you the voucher.”
So with a tiny flutter of hope, we walked through the airport. We found a nice place to have a bite to eat and wait. Exhausted.
The flight to Athens was called and we made our way to the gate. We sat literally on the edge of our seats. They started boarding. First class, business class … economy. We waited. Just as Mom looked like she was going to cry, the Lufthansa lady at the counter called the bipeds’ names.
“I have seats for you!” she beamed.
I have never seen the bipeds so happy to get on a plane. And that is how our vacation started, Dear Reader. We lost a day. It was touch and go all the way. But we made it.
I wish I could say our return to Ottawa was smooth. But alas, Dear Reader, it too was unpleasant.
Our return was a simpler situation. Our flight from Sofia to Munich was on time, but once we arrived in Munich, we learned that our plane was delayed. First it was just an hour’s delay. That was okay we thought; we would still make our connecting flight in Newark to Ottawa, even with clearing customs.
But then they announced a two hour delay and then … a three hour delay.
“At least we are still leaving,” said Dad. Mom smiled halfheartedly. If there is one thing she hates, my friends, it is waiting for nothing.
We finally boarded our flights and arrived in Newark. In the absolute chaos that is this particular airport, we managed to make our way to the desk that would find us a way home. At this point Mom was certain we would be staying the night. She was resigned to our fate. Dad was tired and jet lag had settled in. It was 3:00 p.m. in Newark but for us it was 6 hours later. A lingering cold was not helping his mood. Tired and grumpy the bipeds did their best to go with the flow.
The United Airways Representative found us a flight home. The only set-back? It left at 9:15 pm. It would be past midnight before we’d be home and in our beds.
We accepted the food voucher and found a place to eat. We killed some time walking up and down the dreary and boring common area of Newark airport.
We finally headed to security only to learn the metal detector was not working, leaving only the x-ray scanner for clearance. Mom refused to go through the x-ray scanner with me. So security forced her to walk all the way down a hallway, barefoot, to another area where she and I could go through a working metal detector, and then walk back. Mom was not amused.
Then we sat and waited for our flight.
And the weather turned nasty.
Our flight was delayed 15 min …
Then another 15 min …
By the time we boarded, it was 10:30 pm.
But, we made it. We made it home. It was 1:30 a.m. when we opened our front door. We had been awake and in transit for over 24 hours. But we were home! I got Moby and curled up in bed next to my exhausted bipeds and we all slept deeply.
What We Learned
Being in transit is a lesson in gratitude. After all, we got to our destination and then back home safely. The planes all took off, flew, and landed. There was no crash, no illness, no tragedy. Remaining grateful when everything else is going belly up is a challenging exercise. The bipeds kept saying, “Be a fish. Go with the flow.”
We also learned:
- People are both the biggest problem and the greatest assets when in transit. One particular instance on our flight home really conveys this the best. When we checked in at the Sofia airport, the agent working at the Lufthansa desk didn’t check our backpack all the way to Ottawa. (We had to check our carry-on backpack because the plane was too small to accept any carry on.) Instead, the agent just checked our backpack in to Munich. The agent was rude and seemed annoyed. She was particularly unpleasant when having to check me in on a boarding pass. She didn’t know how and I think it bothered her to be faced with that lack of skill. Twenty minutes later, as we sat waiting for our flight, Mom realized we had no boarding pass for the next two flights. She then checked the baggage claim sticker and noticed the sticker only said, “Munich.” When the agent working the gate showed up, the bipeds went to her and explained the situation. She was remarkable. She got a technician to go down in the belly of the plane, find our backpack and change the tag to go all the way to Ottawa. Then she called ahead to Munich and informed the other airline (she was with Lufthansa and we were continuing our journey with United) that we were in fact on the way and should have been given boarding passes. She then told us what to do when we got to Munich. All this with a smile, a lovely demeanor and an air of apology. A person had caused the problem but another had gone far beyond the call of duty to fix it.
- A travel agent makes all the difference. I can’t stress this point enough. I know many of you still refuse to use a travel agent, thinking you will save big bucks by booking your flight on your own online. But believe me when I tell you that if Danielle had not been there, we would never have made it to Athens when we did. Her insisting to keep looking, over and over again, found an option previously not seen. Find yourself an travel agent you love, who knows your likes and needs, and you have an amazing travel ally at your fingertips. Oh and … have them on speed dial!
- Non-refundable isn’t always the best option. We had a lot of hotel nights booked in advance. In order to pay a lower price, we often chose the non-refundable option. But now we know that, at least for our first night or two, that is not always a good idea. What started as a $30 savings ended up being a $90 loss. We would have been better off paying the $120 for the first night, leaving that booking open for possible cancellation. Flights do get cancelled. Plans do unravel. It is good to remember that booking something non-refundable is a gamble and sometimes you lose.
- Summer is the worst time to travel. It had been years since the bipeds had traveled in the summer and now they remember why. Spring and fall have better fares, fewer storms, and fewer people in the air. Other than December and January, summer is really the worst time to travel.
- If you have an unmovable date, put in a buffer of 4 days or more if you can. The sailing part of our trip was unmovable. The sailboat would leave, with or without us, on a certain day, at a certain time. Luckily, Mom’s experience with travel meant she had booked two nights in Athens followed by two nights in Santorini before our sailing date. We are so glad she booked us this way!
In the end, Dear Reader, it is over and the good news is our vacation was absolutely amazing. The bad flying experiences on the way there and home have not darkened our view of this trip. It was what it was.
And it is important at some point to stop complaining and remember how extraordinary it is that within a day, one can cross the Atlantic and be on another continent. Every time a plane takes off, especially the big 747 types, I am in awe. Thousands of planes fly every day. They have fewer accidents than cars even though the planes fly faster and further. The coordination required to move people and goods is astounding. So when things go wrong, it is important to remember how often it goes right.
Do you have a travel horror story to share?