We recently got back from our trip (Greece and Italy). There are a few things I'd like to write about, particularly the overwhelming (and surprising) beauty of Greece. But since this is a space where I bitch and moan (side note: wouldn't Bitch and Moan be a decent femme band name?), that'll have to wait. First, though, I'd like to share a travel disaster that could have been avoided completely with better planning on my part. This debacle occurred on day one of our trip.
To put this in context, this most recent trip brought my countries-visited total to 62 (plus a few principalities like Gibraltar). Not travel guru level, but definitely experienced. One of my long-term ambitions is to write an opus of insider travel knowledge. I would call it The Travel Bible or something equally banal (I haven't looked, but I'll assume that gem's already taken). In it, I would list all the time- and money-saving efficiencies that can only be learned through bitter experience of one's own fuck-ups. Maybe this sad tale can be my first entry.
Like many things, this travel fiasco began with a series of smaller mistakes that coalesced into a massive kerfuffle.
Mistake number one: Complicated travel plans.
Susan and I were taking my mom on this trip. My mother was coming from Tennessee and we were originating from Southern California. The plan was for us to meet in New York for a shared international flight to Milan. Three people on two different itineraries. Storm's brewing.
Mistake number two: Booking airline tickets independently with tight connections.
To manage costs, I'd booked two separate flights for my mother - a domestic on United from rural TN (as opposed to cosmopolitan, urbanized TN?) to JFK and a second flight some five hours later on Emirates from JFK to Milan. United and Emirates have nothing to do with each other. This could be a HUGE issue; if United was delayed, mom would be out of luck with the second leg should she fail to make the connection. Worse, her flight to New York came into Newark and the international flight left from JFK, setting up a time-intensive transfer that could eat into the safety margin I'd allowed for. Had a significant delay occurred, mom would be a no-show with little recourse in getting to Europe (other than paying for another ticket or - maybe - a hefty change fee).
This type of situation has trouble written all over it and was the most obvious (at the time) risk made in the trip planning. Fortunately, this time we got away with it, but I've been burned by it before: Spirit (AKA Worst Airline Ever) stranded us in Miami once on the way to Costa Rica, and we missed a flight and a night in the jungle as a result.
Mistake number three: Utilizing JFK as a transit hub.
One of my least favorite airports, along with Dulles and Logan. Endless construction (both on the terminals and the runways), hardest NYC area airport to get to from the city. Weather issues and - on our return - they shut a runway down for an airshow (!). Somewhere on Susan's phone, there might be a pic of me giving one of the Blue Angels a double finger as we waited for our delayed take-off.
Sadly, this was the error that got us. Susan and I had a four hour delay leaving San Diego, due to weather and reduced runway capacity in New York. It was clear we'd miss our connection before we even left the ground.
Because of my other mistakes, new, unexpected problems emerged. For starters, my mom, who I'd say is a relatively unconfident international traveler, was now on a plane to Italy all alone, armed only with the hotel info and some hasty over-the-phone instructions on how to get there (I'd made the plans so she wasn't planning on needing to navigate herself). Susan and I were also delayed into a very late night arrival - our flight trundled in five hours late.
But hey, it happens. Since the delay wasn't our fault, all we needed to do was re-book with Emirates for the next day. Hoping to resolve the situation immediately, we went to the check-in desk at the appropriate terminal, only to find the Emirates desk empty (duh - it was one in the morning). We then discovered that JFK's train tracks were, of course, under construction and were only running in one direction, resulting in a long, long transfer to the city. As we were rapidly tiring, we opted for an expensive Uber to our hotel (which I'd booked using points before we'd even left home).
Here's where shit really started coming down sideways. The NYPD closed all five lanes of the arrivals terminal for nearly half an hour so that an ambulance to sit idling, presumably some sort of medical emergency that never materialized. This prevented any sort of ground transport. Then our Uber driver picked up someone else and charged us for their ride (we reversed this later, but c'mon man!). By the time we got to the hotel, it was nearly 2:30 in the morning and we were really starting to drag. However, we had no confirmed flight the next day and this fact was hanging over our desire to sleep. Before we went to bed, Susan and I decided to lock down tomorrow's flight.
Once again, since we'd booked the tickets contiguously (i.e., the airline that brought us to NYC "guaranteed" continued passage to Italy) and hadn't missed a flight through any fault of our own, this should be a simple matter. Right?
Mistake number four: Using an intermediary travel service.
This is where things became TERRIBLE. We'd booked our tickets using a website called Justfly.com (I refuse to link to them for reasons you'll soon see). I'd picked them because they were 20 bucks cheaper than booking directly with Emirates. This turned out to be a HUGE mistake. Justfly.com's terrible, awful customer service outlet is located in India or Pakistan and I'd guess they had maybe one person working. We were on hold for about 40 minutes, listening to this tinny Chinese harp elevator music which Susan played on speakerphone as we waited. If I ever hear this music again, there will be problems for the speaker that's piping it out.
I don't want to give you a blow-by-blow, mainly because thinking about it weeks later still makes me angry. Suffice to say, travel middlemen employ some of the least intelligent people on this planet, which go very, very well with their general inability to help out in any way once a problem occurs.
At first, Justfly conceded they needed to help, but claimed they were powerless to adjust the ticket because the airline hadn't released it. Fine - Susan called Emirates, who released the ticket. Then back to a different rep at Justfly (there's no way to talk to the same person), who now claimed that it was still locked. Another call to Emirates, then to Justfly, both claiming that the other was at fault. Around the sixth call, Justfly tried a new tactic: they claimed that we no-showed deliberately for the second leg of a flight after making the first leg (Susan's best line during the verbal battle that ensued - no shit we no showed!). They wanted to charge us $600 apiece to change our tickets.
At this point, you have three shitty choices: fork over another 1200 bucks, fight on in the face of idiocy and fatigue, or give up. On the second point, you have to remember that each call to Justfly warranted an additional 20 minutes of terrible hold music at a minimum. It was so late the sky was starting to lighten. In total, we ping-ponged between Justfly and Emirates for three hours between 2:30 and 5:30 in the morning.
I was basically out on my feet. Susan fought on, drawing on amazing reserves of stamina I'd never before seen. Finally, she found a slightly less idiotic person who knew about the internet and was able to discover that our initial flight really was delayed (although I should point out that this breakthrough occurred right after I threatened to dispute the charges on our credit card). Although she consented to re-book us without additional fee, there was a catch - since Justfly had no real ability to work within Emirate's booking system, all they could offer us was a flight the next day ("next day" being a euphemism for "eight hours from now") that went to Dubai and then onto Milan. Our seven hour flight became twenty hours just like that.
We could fight no longer. We accepted the proposition and collapsed into bed for a few tepid hours of rest.
Hours later, we were back at the airport (following another time-saving, money-sucking Uber). At the Emirates desk, things finally started going right for us: we were able to get on the direct flight to our destination and were spared an unwelcome tour of the Middle East. Eventually, we were able to link up with my mother and have a fairly normal vacation.
What's the lesson here? Had we booked the tickets directly with Emirates, this would have been handled automatically. Not even a phone call would be required - the airline would note that two passengers couldn't make a connection and would automatically rebook them on the next flight. A day would be lost, nothing more. As it was, we paid dearly for trying to save a couple bucks.
(1) Always allow a day of slough time following flights.
(2) Always book directly with the airlines.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.