The Vacation That Most Spectacularly Wasn’t

by the other theo

Earlier this month, the Missus (my wife,) the Peanut (my son,) and I traveled from California to Upstate New York to see my parents and attend a family wedding on July 5th.  It was, in many ways, almost a story from which a sequel to the film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles could be made.

I come from a small city with its own regional airport.  You can fly into that airport from California, but the flights and times are limited and the planes used for those flights are generally small and relatively uncomfortable.  It generally makes more sense to try to fly into one of two larger market airports about an hour away where there are a lot more flights on bigger planes, and my parents are usually agreeable about picking us and dropping us off.   That’s what we were supposed to do on this trip, but didn’t turn out that way…

Here’s the timeline of how our trip east actually played out:

Thursday, 3-July:

9:40am PDT – Friends pick us up at our house to avoid paying for parking.

10:00am PDT – We arrive at the airport, check our bags, and make our way through the “family” line at TSA security.

12:00pm PDT – Plane to Chicago O’Hare takes off with cell phones in Airplane mode.

4:10pm PDT – Plane lands at Chicago O’Hare, and proceeds to sit on the runway for 20 minutes while waiting for a gate location to open up.

4:30pm PDT – Plane finally gets to the gate, phone comes off Airplane mode, SMS message from the airline immediately arrives stating that our flight from Chicago to our destination airport is cancelled.

4:50pm PDT – We get in line at the airline service desk, about 50-60 people back in the line.  A check of the O’Hare departure and arrival boards shows that a ton of flights are delayed or cancelled that day.

5:50pm PDT – Airline employees begin distributing leaflets containing a phone number for an expedited call center for dealing with the flight problems.   The Missus calls, and we find out that the airline merely booked return flights to California from Chicago on Sunday.   She speaks to an agent, and begins asking me to call out alternative destinations to get us where we need to go.  Philadelphia?  No.  Newark?    Other, smaller cities?  No.  Finally, I hit on Cleveland.  Yes.   We can get a hold on seats to Cleveland, flying out at 6am CDT the next morning.   I call Hertz.  We can get a car.  I call Holiday Inn.  We have a room for the night.   We get seats on the Cleveland flight.   The phone center operator says we should wait in line at the service desk to see if we can get our luggage for the night.  The Missus and I begin taking turns getting food from terminal vendors while we wait in line. After a while, the airline starts passing out leaflets for a company that finds discounted hotel rooms.   The Holiday Inn already has our money.  We can’t go anywhere else.  That’s fine, as the price of the room was reasonable.

8:30pm PDT – We are now about half a dozen groups from the head of the line.   It’s been a bonding experience with the other travelers.  The Peanut has been great; he’s been generally been quiet and well behaved, sitting on the car seat we brought with us on the plane and playing with toys we brought for the trip.   We hear over the public address system that the baggage handlers will shortly be going home for the night, and bags will no longer be available.  We decide to leave the line to the service desk, leave the secure area by going to baggage claim, and see if we can request our bags there.   There is a 30 minute line at the baggage claim office and we give up after some irritable squabbling.  We try to find the pickup point for the hotel shuttle.

9:00pm PDT – We have been waiting at the shuttle stop for 15 minutes and have not seen the hotel shuttle among the many shuttles coming and going.  We call the hotel.  The clerk says that the shuttle runs every 45 minutes and won’t depart for another 15 minutes (or so I think.)   After some more irritable squabbling, we try to find a cab.  When we do, the cabbie is somewhat annoyed at the short trip; O’Hare charges a large fixed fee for each pickup at the airport and short trips don’t justify the cost.   I tip him generously to improve his mood when we arrive.  Along the way, we see the hotel shuttle we were looking for… passing us on the way back to the hotel.  Wha????

9:20pm PDT – We arrive at our room.

9:50pm PDT – We are cleaned up as best we can, we have a wake up call at 1:20am PDT (3:20am CDT), and we try to fall asleep.  The Peanut is initially in bed with me, and my wife in the other bed.  Over the next 20-30 minutes, he moves over to the other bed and finally crashes.  She then moves to the bed with me.

Friday, 4-July:

1:20am PDT – We get up when the phone rings.  Somehow, I am already awake.  I snapped awake about five minutes earlier.  We get dressed, pack up, and make it down to the lobby in about 40 minutes.

2:07am PDT – The hotel shuttle leaves for the airport despite a posted departure time that is 8 minutes later.   Good thing we got down to the lobby early.   We arrive at a nearly empty airport.   The lines for security are very light.   We arrive at the departure gate quickly, joining a number of people who are sleeping, camped out on rows of terminal seats.

4:00am PDT – The flight to Cleveland departs and arrives on time about an hour later.   Clocks switch from CDT to EDT and my body now has no idea what time it really is, except that the sun is up.

5:20am PDT – We wait at baggage claim in Cleveland.  Our bags do not arrive.  The Missus gets in line at the baggage claim office.   All appropriate paperwork is filed.  The clerk tells my wife that we were on a fool’s errand trying to get our bags the previous night at O’Hare.   Word around the Cleveland staff is that O’Hare baggage people never get bags when there is a big pile up of cancellations like that, unless you can prove that something life saving and perishable is in the luggage.

6:10am PDT – We get our car from Hertz.  It’s a Dodge Dart.  I requested a Toyota Camry, but the Dart is “equivalent”.  It’s no big deal since we have no luggage anyway.   We decide to put off eating anything and just run on nervous energy until we need a jolt of sugar and caffeine.  It’s going to be 6+ hour drive.   We set off, driving first on surface streets through the outskirts of Cleveland until we hit the highway, and then north and east past wind turbines and through “Ohio’s Wine Country.”

8:10am PDT – Now in transit for almost 22 hours, we pull off in Erie, PA to hit a Starbucks.  We see restaurants with names like Steak & Shake, Park N Eat and Quaker Steak & Lube.   I get a tall latte and a pastry.   We press on.   Though the Missus is willing to trade off, I drive the whole way.  She and the Peanut get to nap a bit.  It’s a nice day for a drive, generally.   We are interested to see the difference in road maintenance practices between Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.

12:40pm PDT – We finally arrive at my parents house.   We unload the car and I make the 15 minute drive to drop off the car.   My Dad follows behind and brings me “home”.    I finally get a moment to exhale.  I really, really don’t know what time it is anymore.   We head over to my Aunt’s house about 90 minutes later to have a 4th of July picnic on her patio.

5:15pm PDT – The Missus checked the airline web site and determined that our bags have made it to the airport that was our original destination.   As we made this trip to attend a wedding, it is somewhat important to have our clothing.  So, my Mom and I leave the picnic and set out to try to reclaim our bags.

6:30pm PDT – We arrive that the airport and spent the next 75 minutes attempting to track down any airline employees that can help us.  No one is at the airline ticket desk.  We find the woman responsible for delivering unclaimed luggage.  She shows the room where such bags are kept.  Ours are not present.   We talk to security people, and employees of other airlines.  We’re told that all the employees that we’re looking for looking for are at the gate preparing for the arrival of the last flight of the day.   Or they’re hiding out in a break room.   We are told that our best bet is to wait for the luggage to show up for last flight, because they’ll check to see if all bags have been claimed.  Until we determine that the last flight of the day is actually canceled because of the 4th of July holiday.

7:00PM PDT – We give up and head back to my parents house.  I call the Missus from the car.  She calls the airline.  She calls me back.  The airline determined that all employees actually left the airport about 20 minutes before my Mom and I arrived.   She looks on the airline web site again and discovers that our bags are scheduled to fly an extra 500 miles the following morning, from the airport I just left to a hub airport, and then to the regional airport near my parents house.  She calls the airline again to determine the likelihood of getting our bags in time for the wedding.

8:50pm PDT – After over 35 hours of transit, I arrive at my parents house and get ready for bed.   My memory of what happens next is fuzzy.  Did we put the Peanut to bed, or did the Missus take care of that while I was in transit?   I don’t recall.

Saturday, 5-July

5:30am PDT – I awake, feeling somewhat rested.   I use my parents computer to check the status of the flights our bags will be taking.    The flight to the hub has already landed, on time.   The flight to the local airport is running an hour or so late.  When the Missus wakes up a while later, we agree on a plan of action: she will run to a nearby store to get a few “necessities” to clean up and we will then head up to the airport together when our bags are supposed to arrive.  There, we can try to find an airline employee and then make very polite pests of ourselves until we have our bags, or we have a good reason why.  The bags, though running late, are scheduled to arrive over four hours before the wedding is due to start.  If we don’t have our bags, we can borrow clothing from family members and/or hit a shopping mall on the way back to get what we need.

8:45am PDT – We arrive at the airport and wait at baggage claim.  Despite the fact that airline agents told the Missus over the phone that our bags would not appear on the carousel, they turn up on the carousel.  We took them before anyone could ask and left the building as quickly as possible.  Victory!

9:00am PDT/12:00pm EDT – Travel to the wedding is now over, after almost 48 hours of effort.

The rest of Saturday went well.  We got dressed.  We went to the wedding.  We had a good time, and it was great to see everyone.  We all excused ourselves a little early.  My parents were tired, my wife and I were tired, and my son needed some quiet time.  There were some other tales of woe for travelers at the wedding.

Airline travel is not pretty I’m afraid, dear readers.

Sunday, 6-July

I tried to sleep in.  I was pretty much a wreck.   All the nervous energy that sustained me during the previous two days deserted me.

The Missus, the Peanut, and I met up with an old friend from high school and his family.  We first met at his parents’  house, and then at a nearby park.  His parents were so very nice,  but they looked a little frail… much as I suspect my parents must to my friends who first met them 25 years ago.  It was a nice time.   We hadn’t seen each other for about 7 years.    There were some things to catch up on.   We should try a little harder to stay in touch.

We went out to dinner that night with family and had a good time.   It felt like vacation had arrived, but it also felt much too short.

Monday, 7-July

I had to work, of all things.  One of the things that made travel on Thursday/Friday so hectic for me was that there was a “red alert” going on back at the office when I left.   I put off checking my office e-mail the previous two days because I knew I needed the time off.   I could no longer make that justification in my own mind.

While things were not back to normal on Monday morning, a way to get some ailing servers out of intensive care was now clear.  It mostly involved moving large amounts of data around.   Such operations take a long time.  It left me with lots of large holes in my work day where I could do other things.    Did I want to be working at all that day?  No.  Did I need to be working that day to start putting the whole mess at work to bed and behind me?  Yes.

As it was, the Missus and I got to do a little shopping.   We then went out to dinner again, this time with friends.  Ironically, we ended up at the same place I went with family the previous night.   We capped the evening off with soft serve ice cream, at a stand that I already mentioned.

Tuesday, 8-July

The trip home began without much fanfare.   We got up, got in the car about the time we’d hoped, and got on the road without incident.  About 30 minutes into the trip, things took a turn for the worse.  Another text message arrived from the airline, saying this time that our initial flight of the day was delayed by over 90 minutes.  As we had a relatively tight connection at Newark later in the day, and a 90 minute delay will force us to miss the flight.  I end up calling the airline on my cell phone from a truck stop parking lot near the highway.   We get seats (or so we are told) on a flight three hours later.

We arrive at the airport about 35 minutes before our flight was originally scheduled to leave.  Making new arrangements burned up some time.  We are promptly scolded by the woman at the ticket counter for “not taking the airport seriously”.   It turns out that the delay is the call of air traffic control, not weather or maintenance and the 90 minute delay is gradually being pulled back in as time goes on.   It also turns out that the woman at the counter is also working at the gate to prep for the flight, and she’s tired of walking back and forth between the counter and the gate.   She really just wants all the people on the flight checked in.  I guess I don’t blame her, but after Thursday and especially Friday night, my patience was wearing a little thin.

As it was, we got through security quickly and to the gate with time to spare.  We flew to Newark.  Another text message greeted us when I took my phone off “airplane mode”.   I supposedly got seat confirmation for all three seats at that truck stop: two seats next to each other and another across the aisle in the middle in the same row.    Now the airline is telling me that my seat has been reassigned, from next to my son to the last row of the plane, back against the bulkhead, with my toddler son, the Peanut, sitting alone.

Ugh.  How did this happen?  The airline has a smart phone app.  I check it.  It wants to sell me the seat I had next to my son for a fee.  I try to buy it, and seat reservation system won’t let me.  What gives?  I go to the service counter in the terminal while my wife and son get something to eat.   They tell me that I need to talk to the gate agent before the plane boards, about an hour before departure time.

Fortunately, that works.  The woman there hears my tale of woe, that I thought I had a seat but got moved, and most importantly, that I don’t want the Peanut to travel without one of his parents next to him.   She just hits a couple keys and hands me a boarding pass with the seat I was assigned on phone hours before.   Why does that have to be so hard?

The rest of the trip was largely uneventful, except that it was long.   Newark to California is a long flight.  I’d been traveling through a hub in the Mid-West for the last few years, not flying east to the Atlantic coast, and then flying west.   I got four hours into the flight and realized that I had another 2.5 hours or more to go.

The only other wrinkle came with our bags.  Somehow my checked bag flew with us on the same plane.   My wife’s checked bag flew on the plane we originally supposed to take and arrived 3 hours early.   It was only took a few minutes to resolve the problem.

Then we were home about 45 minutes later.   I was wiped out.   I came in late for work the next day.   I figure I could do that given that I was working on my vacation.

It took another week to really feel human again.  Some people say “oh, I need a vacation after my vacation.”   I did too, but I don’t think this is what they had in mind.