Friday, June 29, 2007

LIVE Blogging - Planes, Trains & Automobiles Edition

It's Friday.

We have been at airports, getting vouchers and standing in lines, since Tuesday evening.

And we're still not home.

Granted, we are almost home, and there will be no more lines or vouchers, but seriously. I don't think I had ever missed or been bumped from a flight before in my life, and now I don't even believe them when they give me a boarding pass anymore. Turns out half the time they're really just little paper pacifiers. Boarding pass-ifiers.

So where were we? The bonus night in Athens was lovely, and if all we'd had to do to "earn" it were go through the day I described in the post below, I think we would probably all do it over again.

If only it had ended there.

So we were in the hotel with the vouchers from the airline. The Olympic van picked us up from the hotel on time and took us to the airport. We walked in and Mom found a push cart for our bags. We found our check-in window, waited in line, and checked in. They took our bags and gave us boarding passes without making too many frowny faces at their computer screens. We did a little shopping (the Duty Free guy looked at my boarding pass and said people flying to the United States can't buy Greek Delight candy because it's a gel - we bought extra chocolate instead), went through security, entered the gate area, and boarded the plane. The flight took off from Athens and landed in New York eleven hours later as planned.

Can you see how we might be feeling a bit cocky at that point? Carefree even?

We landed at JFK, went through passport control, recovered our bags - nothing lost or broken - and fairly flew through customs.

We had flown into JFK, and we knew our connecting flight was out of LaGuardia, but we had the recommended 3-hour layover (three and a half in fact), and we had been told our bags could be rechecked after customs.

Right there. That's where it all began to break down.

Of course, having to get our own bags over to the other airport was a pain, but manageable. We had already figured that it might work out that way. But still, it was the first hitch we encountered, and in retrospect was our first clue that getting from Europe to the United States was not, in fact, the hard part.

You know, travel agencies (at least the online ones that I frequent) treat JFK and LaGuardia, and Newark for that matter, as if they were one big airport. Airline ticket counters do the same thing when they're looking for alternate routes after messing up your original plans. (In fact, they do the same thing with Gatwick and Heathrow.) Well, I am here to tell you that by no stretch of the imagination do JFK and LaGuardia actually operate as one big airport.

Before leaving Greece, we looked into the options for getting from one to the other, and when we got there we checked the Ground Transportation Information counter, which confirmed what we had found - there are two or three ways to do it, but none of them are smooth and automatic like one would think they should be (much less free or inexpensive), even though travelers are routinely routed from one to another as if it were a simple terminal change.

We opted for the Airport Express Bus, or some such thing - turns out there are a number of apparently private companies operating under a range of similar names. We paid our $13 each (yikes) and waited while bus after bus came and left without picking up any of our group of probably six or eight people all wanting to go to LaGuardia.

By the time the right bus from the right company (with a driver in the right mood) conceded to stop and load people up, we were beginning to see that the time might be a problem. Then when they stoped for 10 minutes more at another terminal to collect the tickets, load more passengers, make a list of which airline each person needed to be taken to, and argue with one passenger about how late we were all going to be, time was clearly running short.

We did overhear one guy on his cell phone saying that there was a flight to Raleigh leaving an hour after ours, and I figured we would probably have to see if we could stand by for that, since by the time we pulled up to US Airways departures there was less than half an hour left before our flight and not only would we have to remove and replace our shoes at security, we also had bags to check and were holding a Flight Interruption Manifest (in triplicate) from a Greek airline in lieu of actual tickets.

But we needn't have worried, since the first thing we found (after a handy abandoned push cart for our luggage) was a Departures board showing that our flight had been cancelled.

Not just our flight, but about 70% of all US Airways flights to anywhere had been cancelled.

There were plenty of US Airways personnel about the place, showing people what line to get in and handing out sheets with a toll-free number to try and rebook. One of them even loaned me his cell phone to try the number. And the guy who answered tried to rebook us himself, then switched me over to International customer service since we had arrived on an international flight. I figured that might give us some sort of priority, but it didn't seem to help, and in the end the best the guy on the phone could come up with was, "get yourselves to Newark or go on over and stand in the Ticket line."

Obviously, we were already standing in the ticket line, which was considerably closer than Newark.

The best the in-person ticket agent could come up with was a Charlotte flight for Saturday. Saturday! Can we all just take a moment and recall that we started standing in lines on Tuesday? Thank you.

We were making periodic phone calls to Dad & Scott, as well as looking into bus and train options, thinking that either one might end up being cheaper than staying until Saturday even if we just slept in the airport, considering that we had already spent $8 on two small cookies and a one-liter bottle of water.

Dad & Scott were willing to drive up and get us if we could get a flight to someplace closer than New York, so I got back in line and maneuvered to get a guy who was higher ranking than the regular ticket agents, and who had been particularly friendly and helpful when we chatted earlier. Okay, actually I was just lucky and ended up at his station, but I was prepared to maneuver if it turned out to be necessary.

I told him we would take anthing to anywhere in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia or DC, and he came up with a 7:00 a.m. flight to DC the next morning. I both hinted and asked outright about any offices or comfy corners of the airport that might be available for desperate travelers needing to spend the night, but he wasn't quite that friendly and helpful.

Another guy I asked didn't have any lifesaving advice, but he did allow as how the downstairs baggage claim area had some chairs at least, and Lisa went down and found carpeted floors (unlike the ticketing area) and a bunch of other people already curling up on them, so we joined in.

We stayed up another half hour so we could make one last call to Dad & Scott to continue mapping out contingency plans and smoke signals for the next day, then we curled up beside a baggage carousel at 9:00 p.m. and did our best to go to sleep. The floor was, as I say, carpeted, but as it turns out it's surprisingly hard to sleep, even after a 21-hour day, when the lights are on, the air conditioning too cold, and the PA system delivering a pair of loud, clearly enunciated security announcements at 20-minute intervals, plus urgent boarding calls for the few flights that were actually cleared for departure. In addition to the four incoming flights that got there between 9:00 p.m. and midnight, with the arriving passengers talking on cell phones and politely stepping over and around our baggage and ourselves as they collected their own bags from the carousel.

I think I got a total of about three hours of sleep between 9:00 p.m. and 3:30 a.m., when I gave up on it. By then it was 10:30 a.m. in Greece, and not having experienced any darkness to tell it otherwise, my body was sick of trying unsuccessfully to rest and was instead ready to start the day. Plus we needed to get up at 4:00 anyway because that's the earliest we could check in for our 7:00 a.m. flight. We weren't really sure at that point whether we were ticketed or standby passengers, and either way we figured things would be a little more comfortable and secure (with better food options) inside the gate area. (Not that we felt insecure where we were, given the 35 other people and families sacked out all around us and a couple of security personnel who didn't have any problem with us being there.)

So we headed back up to the ticket counters at 4:00 a.m. The airline personnel were arriving, regular commuters were showing up for the DC shuttle, and some of our fellow stranded passengers were stirring by then. When US Airways opened for business at about 4:30, we were 20th in line (and there was another flight leaving before ours), and we had no trouble checking in. We were singled out for additional security on the way to the gate, but quite a few other people were too, and we had plenty of time.

There were only two shops open in the gate area, but we did manage to get two little half-pints of milk and a large coffee for just $4, and we were carrying a bit of muesli and even a plastic cup to put it in and a spoon to eat it with. We also had most of a substantial bar of Greek something that wasn't very tasty, but from the ingredients seemed like it would have not only calories but fiber and protein as well, since it was a tahini-based product.

We were in plenty of time and I even tried to blog from the gate, but the Internet stations wouldn't take my money, so that didn't work out.

We boarded our flight and flew to DC, where we were met by my Mom's friends who are now some of my favorite people in all the world. They helped carry our bags to the Metro and then to their house, gave us juice and coffee and showers and beds and laundry and Internet, all of which we have accepted in various combinations.

Dad and Scott are driving up and should be here in a couple of hours. Since we still have a 5.5-hour car trip ahead of us, I'm planning to stay awake until they get here and with any luck I'll miss the entire ride; it's got to be more comfortable than Baggage Claim, right?


juliloquy June 29, 2007 10:53 AM  

Unbelievable! And I was frustrated by my U.S. Airways flight to MN that was cancelled, requiring a 1-hour wait to be rerouted (with a toddler who was a trouper), while our bags went on without us. . . . It's nothing compared to your saga. And you're not really home home yet. Hope that last trip goes much better!

Erin June 29, 2007 10:54 AM  

Wow!! What an ordeal! Glad to hear that you are at least on American soil (not that the American airports have been any nicer to you than the foreign ones) and closer to home. I'll be thinking about you. Hope you get some rest in the car.

Sandy June 29, 2007 12:29 PM  

By the time you read my smart ars comment, you'll be home so.....
WELCOME HOME!!! This was my favorite post so far, no lie. :)
Aren't New Yorkers (NYC) a breed of their own??? LOL

Anonymous June 29, 2007 3:39 PM  

My kids would end up calling this 'Adventures with Mom'. They'd be adding it to the rest of their anthology of 'travel "war" stories'. Since your Mom was there as well, you could add it to your compendium. All jokes aside though, the New York airport experience begins to resemble something like a railway station in India. We think we have made so much progress, but in fact we have not. Just some of the technology has changed. The human experience stays the same.

Robin June 29, 2007 4:20 PM  

When I called this, prior to your departure, your trip of a lifetime, I didn't mean to imply that it would take a lifetime! I sincerely hope your return flight to Costa Rica (if you haven't already missed it) is on time, direct, hassle-free and painless!

Oh, and tell Lisa I'll be glad to cook her sesame chicken, or anything else she wants, to see the pictures from this trip!

theotherbear July 01, 2007 3:59 AM  

Yikes! What an ordeal!!!

Lainey-Paney July 03, 2007 7:35 AM  

Oh my goodness! What a mess!

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