Navigating Through That Travel Nightmare

Travel almost always goes my way. If you ever want to have good luck when traveling, bring me!  Where ever I go on vacation, the sun is shining, the planes leave on time, limited tours have just enough space for us, a brass band greets us as we get off the plane (true story!)… It’s a great experience.

However, when it goes bad, it’s truly awful.

Travel NightmareTo set the stage: My dream has always been to travel the world, but it always seemed out of reach. After a series of horrible events, I had to restart my life and push my travel dreams back. I was 24 or 25 before I even made it out of my time zone. International travel seemed like it would never happen. One day, my aunt called me to tell me she won an award through work – an award that required an overseas trip for herself and one guest. My uncle did not want to go (after years in the Marines, he was emphatic about staying put in the U.S.) and my cousin was too young. “Would you like to come with me?” she asked. I really wish one of my friends recorded the happy dance I did in that renaissance faire parking lot, half dressed in my garb. That was before she even uttered the magic words “All expenses paid.” I just had to get myself to the Carolinas to meet her for the flight. I didn’t even care where we were going (Dubai, originally, then moved to Athens due to security concerns in the Middle East at the time), I was just excited to go somewhere.

In preparation for the trip, I read everything I could on my destination, the dos and don’ts of international travel, packing tips, how to bargain in marketplaces, and basic phrases for travelers. I prepared for almost every misfortune I could. I packed a couple of outfits in my carry-on bag in case my luggage was lost. My Kindle was loaded with books to keep me occupied. We had an eight hour layover in Frankfurt, so I printed out information on the city and storing carry-on luggage at the airport, maps, and points of interest. We were arriving a day early for my aunt’s mini-conference, with a beautiful hotel room facing the Parthenon.  My aunt, on the other hand, threw some clothes into a couple of bags and called it a day.

It was on the very first flight that things started to fall apart.

DSCN0372We started off cheerful in Charleston, South Carolina, in one of the smaller airports I have been in. They were putting us on one of the smallest planes I traveled in at that point – one of those ones where you have to walk down the stairs onto the tarmac and cross over to go up the plane’s steps for boarding. My carry-on luggage was larger than the size of the overhead bins, so they checked my bag for me. Everyone boarded and settled in quickly, anxious to be on our way to Dulles airport for the next leg of our journeys.

And then we just sat there. About twenty minutes after our original departure time, a flight attendant informs us that the plane is overweight and asks if anyone is willing to be bumped until tomorrow morning (with adequate compensation, of course.) They had a few volunteers early on and, rather than get them off the plane so we can depart, they handle the entire situation there on the plane – having them sign paperwork for the vouchers, taking their information, etc. We finally took off about an hour after our original departure time, landing in a rainy Virginia an hour and fifteen minutes after our original arrival time. We now have about half an hour until our next flight, so my aunt and I take off at a run to our next gate, our soaked sneakers squeaking on the floor, only to find they’ve sold our seats already and closed the gates twenty five minutes before departure.

are you fucking kidding me

The unsympathetic employees directed us to a customer service desk for assistance on getting another flight out. It was easy to find the desk; it was the one with the ridiculous line within site of our gate. As we were getting in line, the employees were grabbing their stuff and walking out. (Apparently the airline we were traveling on was recently taken over by another airline. That day was the last day for a large number of employees who were laid off.) One person manned the desk alone for the majority of the two and a half hours we stood in that line, watching flight after flight depart on the nearby departure boards. (The plane we were originally scheduled to fly on ended up sitting at the gate for another half hour AFTER the scheduled departure time, which was salt in the wound.) Once we made it to the desk, the best they could do was an overnight stay in Dulles, Virginia, with a flight and an eight-hour layover to Newark, New Jersey before arriving in Athens a day later than originally planned: no long layover and day trip to Frankfurt, no day in Athens on our own. As we were settling all of this, that’s when I discovered that at some point (probably when I was running through the rain across the tarmac from the plane to the gate in Dulles), I dropped the stubs from our checked luggage.

Lesson #1: When you get your checked luggage stubs, put them in a safe place immediately. Your pocket (pants, jacket, or otherwise) is not a safe place if you have to take off at a run. Find a secure place in your carry-on. Without those stubs, all they could do was input a description of our luggage into the computer system and hope for the best.

DSCN0376
Exhausted selfie after boarding in Dulles.

By the time we finished at the desk, it was midnight. Our next flight took off at 5AM, but we had a hotel voucher that we were determined to use. We went downstairs, found the only restaurant still open, grabbed some food to go, and caught the hotel shuttle, checking in at almost 1AM and setting a 3AM wake-up call. My aunt was pissed by the whole situation and ready to call the entire trip off, but I, being a very laid-back and chill person, calmed her down and got her to laugh about the situation. She didn’t have any clothes packed in her carry-on, so I let her shower first, borrow a t-shirt to use as pajamas as well as a pair of clean underwear.

Lesson #2: A shower and clean underwear makes everything better.

A few hours later, we were back to the airport and on our way to Newark, New Jersey, where we solved our problems with some surprisingly good calamari, a nap in the chairs near our gate, and a few hours in an airport bar. Our nine hour flight to Athens included three hours of a screaming child behind me kicking my seat during his temper tantrum. I have never been so happy to get off a plane in my life. Upon arrival, we discovered in baggage claim that my luggage never made it on the plane. It went with us to Newark (Good job, Team Dulles, on finding that based on my vague description!) but the Newark team sent it to baggage claim there, where it sat in an office unclaimed for hours. They only had one flight going to and from Athens, so we would have to wait for the plane to go back to Newark and come back. I had one outfit left in my carry-on; my luggage and I would be reunited over two days later. The ride my aunt arranged to pick us up in Greece never showed up either (neither that day nor the day before when we were originally scheduled to show up, according to the logs kept at the information desk), so we had to grab a taxi at the airport. When we made it to the hotel in Vouliagmeni, we discovered the entire country shuts down on Monday afternoons. There weren’t any clothing stores in the area open. My aunt’s company had a packed schedule for us for the next few days, so that was my only chance to try to get clothes. Luckily my aunt and I wear nearly the same size so I was able to borrow a couple of outfits until my luggage finally arrived.

I spent way more time than I would like alternating between the same two Harry Potter t-shirts.

Lesson 3: Pack as many outfits as possible in your carry-on. One or two won’t get you very far if your luggage gets lost and you can’t get to a clothing store. Make sure you purchase travel insurance as well; that should help you with the expense involved with replacing some of your lost items.

It was overall a very frustrating experience, but I didn’t let it get to me. I made things work, shrugging my shoulders when something happened and making a new game plan when possible. Travel isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, even for those of us who seem to lead a charmed life while on vacation. Take this opportunity to learn from your experiences, to plan for those things that you can change and accept those that you can’t. Yelling at the airline employees will make you feel better for a moment, but won’t help the situation (and that guilt will likely set in sometime later.) You’re more likely to get the assistance you need if you can be calm and polite through the situation.

Oh, and very important:

Lesson #4: I will never fly that airline again.

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