Wednesday, December 27, 2006

holiday roadtrip?

This is a canned post. I generally like to post them fresher but this is one that I don't want to forget. And so I share it with you straight from the can.

I left the office at 3:30pm for LaGuardia Airport. My flight was at 6:45pm. The cab driver got me there by 4:30pm. Plenty of time to stand in line, try the express check-in counter, get denied at the kiosk, wait in the wrong line, get in the right line, wait again, and then have the woman at the counter tell me that my flight connecting through Chicago to St. Louis was cancelled. For whatever reason - fog or something several flights to Chicago had been cancelled leaving many people stressed and stranded.

There was one flight direct to St. Louis at 8:10pm that was overbooked but might have room. I could take my chances and try to fly standby, otherwise there was nothing available until after the holiday. The woman at the counter suggested that I go home and have a nice holiday in New York. As if that would be possible. I decided to take my chances.

I checked my bag and went through security to wait at the gate. I called my parents to let them know that I probably wouldn't be coming home this year and got pretty close to tearful about it. Especially when I noticed that there were maybe 17 people at the gate over three hours before an 8:10 flight, probably all hoping to fly standby.

I texted the RM an expression of my despair and she texted back some encouragement. And then, being the best RM ever, called to encourage me to call the other airlines and see if any of them had flights. She even gave me their numbers.

I called and waited on hold and waited and then found out. Northwest had a flight out on the 24th of December for $700. And a roundtrip with flight back for $1100. Delta had a flight out on the 22nd roundtrip for $1390. I sat on the phone with Delta seating bullets over whether I could afford that ticket. The guy on the other end of the line was a customer service agent from across the ocean, perhaps India, with an accent that was difficult to understand, I asked him to repeat everything twice. He sat with me listening to me sweat and try to work it out in my head and then aloud. If I did this, could I still pay rent? Could my outstanding bills wait until February? Could I cover the minimum? Could I survive on raisins, ramen noodles, and stewed tomatoes for the month it would take to cover that? Did I have space on my credit card?

And then the guy interrupted my holiday sweatfest and asked if I would like to be transferred for discounted hotel and rental car reservations. I tried to explain that I would probably have no need for either of those things as I would be staying with family or headed to my apartment and he interrupted me to repeat: would I like to be transferred for discount hotel and RENTAL CAR reservations. *ah.* *Message received* I meekly replied: "If you could transfer me to Hertz I would be so grateful."

I made a reservation for a rental car one way from New York to St. Louis. A really nice lady named Marge was on the other end of the line the two times that I called with regard to my reservation. Which she said in itself was a funny coincidence because there were hundreds of operators standing by.

After all of that I decided to stick around and see if I could get on the plane standby. Why not? If I got on that plane I would have a two and half hour flight vs. a 20 hour drive.

A young woman in a grey sweater heard me on the phone and asked if she could ride with me. To which I said "No problem." She seemed ambivalent about her whole trip to the Lou. It wasn't really clear whether she would want to make the drive or not. She was a strong maybe.

A young man sitting nearby advised me to ask around and try to find other people interested in splitting the driving and the cost.

It turned out that I was 11th on a list of 17 people who wanted on that plane. Grey sweater girl was number 2. I thought for sure that she would be on that plane. The flight was super overbooked. Three people with tickets who arrived on time were bumped from that flight, given car service home, and a "guaranteed spot" on a flight to the Lou at 6am the next day. Although it's not clear why these three people were going to be able to fly home while the 17 of us who were on cancelled flights were apparently SOL. The guy at the counter mumbled something about putting them on standby for the first flight out in the morning.


This whole practice of overbooking flights sucks. On the evil corporate "must maximize revenue" side, I see why they do it. But I don't see why they do it during the Christmas holiday. Even without inclement weather it seems like they would be guaranteed to get all their planes filled through standby ticket holders and the miracle of online booking at the height of the holiday travel season. It's weird to be in a business in which you sell the same thing to two different people, counting on one of them to flake. Yet telling each that they have a guaranteed seat on the plane.

At this point I called AA and asked whether I could refund the first half of my ticket and use the second half. I was told that this is against company policy. If you are not on the flight out they cancel the entire reservation and that is that. If I wanted this kind of exception I had to go to the ticket counter and ask them if it would be okay. I am so glad that I called. I was about to jump in the car and drive off assuming that I had a reservation to fly back. There would have been an ugly scene in the airport in the Lou were it not for this call.

So I waited and waited in line behind sad desperate angry people who did everything in their power to somehow move immoveable airline employees to help them. Weeping, yelling, shouting, cursing, begging, insisting.

While in line some of the other people overheard me discussing my rental car scenario and a Korean woman asked if I was leaving that night. To which I said "Yup."
A blonde woman in a red jacket who looked like she had been near tears asked if she could join us. To which I said, "Yup."
The Korean woman then pointed to a black woman and her daughter and asked if they could join us as well. To which I said, "Yup."

The girl in the grey sweater who said that the trip was not worth it now seemed very sad that she was not able to go. She had bought a beautiful ball gown and super long white gloves for the occasion that she was now missing. But she was assured that she would see her family for Christmas whether she made this flight or not. And she opted to get a refund of her ticket.

Halfway through helping one guy they decided to close the counter at the gate and send everyone down to the ticket counter. *sigh*

So we all walked over there and waited in line again. For what seemed like forever. And then we all walked up to the counter freaking the lady at the ticket counter out. She reacted as if we were an angry mob of villagers and she, a poor Dr. Frankenstein defending her beloved monster from torches and pitchforks.

I calmly and quickly told her that we all had about the same question and proceeded to explain our situation.

Cancelled flights,
Need to get home for the holidays,
I rented a car,
We were strangers who had agreed to road trip out there together,
Could we get our returns confirmed and rebooked
Could we get a refund on the used portion of our trip

Breathe, remain calm, maintain eye contact. Don't shout. Don't cry.
She first told us that we should call the number. I told her that I had and was referred to the ticket counter.
She told us that this was against company policy and unacceptable. We all looked exhausted and desperate. She said that she would go ask her supervisor and was gone for an eternity. We sat and waited with bated breath and some anxiety. This was the best that I could do. After this I was out of options. Or at least my options got very sticky. If the universe was not going to work with me on this ... the universe was a cruel evil bitch and American Airlines was the instrument of her cruelty.

The lady came back and said that she had the supervisor's approval. A corporate miracle brought to us by the mysterious supervisor in the back room and the young lady at the counter. She warned us to drive carefully, to take frequent breaks, and be careful at truckstops.

I call my parents to announce that I am driving to the Lou with four strangers. Three women and a little girl. My mother asks me what I know about these people and I say, "Well I know for sure that they are not carrying, bombs or explosives. And I am pretty sure that they are unarmed," causing her and the three women standing with me to all laugh.

We went to the bathroom got caffeinated beverages, picked up luggage or checked on its travel status and took the bus to Hertz.

At Hertz I insisted that we did not want an SUV. We settled after some discussion on a Toyota Camry. And left LaGuardia at about 11:30pm

We were: me, J - the blond woman, SY - the Korean woman, S - the mother from Tanzania, and N - her 8 year old daughter.

We are wives and sisters and daughters. We are every color of the rainbow. We are all faiths and creeds. We are the arts and sciences. We are the world piled into a Toyota Camry headed for the middle of the country.

I asked J to drive first and we haul out of town. We drive with pit stops for food, gas, and bathroom breaks. Everyone takes a 2-3 hour shift. Some of us napping, some of us driving. My father calls to warn us to be on the lookout for deer while driving through Pennsylvania at night.

J figures out how to use the navigation device on the car which ends up being kind of cool. It gives us directions on a turn by turn basis with a 2-0.5 mile advance warning of any change in direction and a little map display to let us know where we are going. We eat a lot of fast food. We make awkward conversation on a variety of topics. We are a group of people that would probably not run into each other in our regular lives. We are very polite. The ride is surprisingly pleasant and uneventful. We drive through some pretty nasty rain on a variety of occasions - usually when SY is driving and we speculate on whether it is this weather that caused our flights to get cancelled. We make decent time.

Throughout the drive we pass many a Fed-Ex truck working hard to bring you gifts from loved ones, I am sure. By the next morning N is comfortable with all of us and seeking some entertainment. Some of which was gotten by playing with her Gameboy. Some of which was gotten by braiding people's hair and getting her hair braided. Riding with a youngster is an ice breaker. The best game by far turns out to be persuading truckers to honk their horns. If you are a grown up of a certain age you have watched the "Smokey and the Bandit" movies and you know what the gesture looks like - a fist raised in the air and pulled down as if tugging the cord of a horn. The entire backseat : S, N and SY would gesture as we passed a truck.

A fair number of truckers ignored us. Some honked and had quiet little horns. Some of them honked with gusto. And we were sure the wave like mad and cheer when that happened. One Fed-Ex driver we passed in Indiana gave us the biggest loudest and most sustained honking of any trucker we passed. I was pleased to know that the Fed-Ex drivers could be cool like that.

We rolled into the Lou by about 5:30pm. Settled up the bill, shook hands and all merrily went our separate ways.
So glad we made it.


At 9:35 AM, December 28, 2006, Blogger Molly said...

What an ordeal! Enjoy Christmas in St. Louis (oh I am so jealous, so many good places to eat...I still miss the Lou)

At 4:16 PM, December 28, 2006, Blogger Kat E said...

That's a great story. Glad it had a happy ending!

At 9:08 PM, December 28, 2006, Blogger snowcrush said...

Great story! At least you got home safely, and got a great blog story out of it? So sorry about all the trouble:-( I was damn lucky to at least be on flights...very late, full, anxious flights, but lucky seeing as driving from NY to MT would've taken just short of a week! Yikes!!

Anyway, hope the little furry terror isn't giving you too much trouble! See you soon:-)


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