Follies And Fixes In Long-Haul Travel

TheeErin via Flickr (Creative Commons)

It was not yet 6 a.m., but I had a bad feeling about how the day was going to go. The stone faced desk clerk had no interest in checking me in here in Vienna, not to mention through to my final destination, Seattle.

“No. Different booking.”

“But it’s with the same airlines…”

“Different booking. No.”

“So I’ll have to…”

“You’ll need to collect your bag in Amsterdam, and then check in again when you get there. Take your bag to the departures desk.”

“I don’t understand. These flights are on the same airlines. Can you check me in, at least, so I can drop my bag…”

“No. Different booking.”

I gave up. Priority club, my ass.I accepted the boarding pass for my flight from Vienna to Amsterdam and headed through security. I told myself to chill, my stop was six hours and I had a lounge pass tucked into my wallet. I’d recheck in Amsterdam and then spend the morning napping in the KLM lounge.

At the check-in desk in Amsterdam, I asked the clerk what the problem was, why I couldn’t check in, why I couldn’t get my bag through.

“It’s terrible,” she said, “but they’re responsible for your luggage. If they lose it, they have to pay to have it shipped. They don’t want to do that.”

“But it’s with the same airline, both of my flights are KLM/Delta.”

“I know,” she admitted. “It makes no sense.” She shook her head.

I felt somewhat placated. It wasn’t a huge annoyance, but I wanted someone to agree that it was ridiculous. Off I went to clear security again and to breathe the rarified air of the frequent flier lounge.

“No. This pass is no good here.”

“But it says on the website that …”

“Yes, but not for day passes. We don’t take the day pass here. Delta doesn’t pay for the use of the lounge, so we don’t take their passes.”

I thought I’d understood the rules; I’d read them before buying my pass. I couldn’t bring a guest, but I only wanted to bring… myself. Obviously I had not studied the small print with enough detail. And I’d made the mistake of asking the KLM Twitter account, not the Delta Twitter account, about access. What I don’t understand about airline partnerships could fill a book.

“You can buy a pass for 45 Euros.”

I’d spent 50 dollars to buy the lounge pass. It’s not so much money, but I was getting crankier and crankier. I was trying not to get angry. I was tired. I’d been up since 4:30 that morning. I knew I’d be tired; I rarely sleep well before a long flight.

“But you’re partners,” I said. “You give me partner status everywhere else.”

“Let me see what I can do,” said the desk clerk, who then called a supervisor, a cool woman in uniform who offered to sell me a pass for 45 Euros. I looked at the KLM agent, angry at her and at myself for not making sure I’d understood the small print.

I told myself to chill. Again. Schiphol is a nice airport. There are worse places to spend a few hours drinking coffee and people watching and dozing in lounge chairs. There’s good food, and Wi-Fi that’s not great, but is fast enough for complaining on Twitter about how you’re angry at your airlines.

“Get more coffee,” I thought. “You’re just tired. This isn’t a big deal.”

I got coffee and juice and a sandwich on good brown bread with very fresh mozzarella. I opened my laptop and complained. I drank my juice. I drank my coffee. I hammered away on my keyboard, the picture of a crabby, tired traveler on a stopover.

This business with my lounge pass was the last act in a comedy of errors in my travels to Europe and back. Thanks to a cargo problem on my outbound flight two weeks earlier, my connection in Schiphol to Frankfurt was airtight. I was the last passenger to board the plane – my luggage would not make it. I was not particularly worried. I’d seen a series of flights to Frankfurt following mine. Worst case? My bag would show up while I was sleeping. I could chill.

I went to report the missing luggage at the Delta counter in Frankfurt.

“You need KLM,” said the man at the desk.

“But I checked in on Delta… and there’s nobody there.”

“There HAS to be somebody there,” he said, clearly exasperated, and then, walked me back to the KLM desk. There was nobody there. I walked out into arrivals and asked at the information desk, and then, was directed back into the baggage hall.

The clerk had materialized, removed the “Closed” sign, and was taking missing baggage reports from two impatient Israelis who’d boarded just before I did. It was my turn.

“Here’s your claim number and the website where you can find out when your bags will arrive.”

I stowed the printout with my documents and headed to the hotel. It took me 15 minutes to get there. My luggage was reported on the ground and ready for delivery not long after I’d had lunch. At about 12 hours, I asked for help in calling the number given to me by the clerk at the baggage desk.

“Oh, lord, don’t call that number! They’ll charge you by the minute!”

“Wait, I have to pay them to tell me where my stuff is? That’s crazy.”

I checked with customer service online. “Your luggage is on the ground and ready for delivery,” they said.

“Well, I KNOW that,” I replied. “I’ve know that for 24 hours now.” My bag did finally appear, nearly 36 hours after I’d arrived.

“We’re sorry for the delay,” said the note from KLM. “We hope you understand.”

I’d had it with ground services by the time I returned to Schiphol two weeks later. Any one of these events in isolation I’d have written off as bad luck, a bad day, or general travel mishaps. But the aggregation was making me irritable. The Delta KLM partnership began to feel like a an embittered marriage, kept together for the sake of the kids. I imagined them bickering after the little airplanes had gone to bed. “You said you would…”

I gazed past the plastic chairs and iPad-using Germans and families of bleary Americans in sweatshirts, breakfasting in various states of disconnection with their surroundings. Just on the edge there was the pale purple glow of the Yotel, a pod hotel that offers hourly cabins with showers. I looked at my crumpled, useless lounge pass, at my overpriced juice, at my angry typing on the weak Wi-Fi and then, I checked in for three and a half hours of attitude adjustment.

It cost me 46 Euros for the stay. For that, I got a tiny, clean, super efficient cabin with a comfortable single bunk, a shower and toilet, a TV (which I did not turn on), a powerful Wi-Fi connection, unlimited non-alcoholic drinks (which I did not take sufficient advantage of) and some much needed private space in which to reset my state of mind.

It was money well spent. When I checked out of my cabin after a short nap and some silent lethargy, I felt human again.

Airline partner terms are unclear, delays happen, the mystery of why you can check in here and not there – these things are all part of the process. The follies of transit are a critical part of travel and often, they are unavoidable. As a seasoned traveler, it’s rare that I let this stuff get under my skin.

But sometimes, when patience wears thin, you can throw a few bucks at a problem and not make it go away, but at least make it better. Upgrade your seat to Economy Plus, spring for a taxi and get an airport hotel the night before the early flight. Don’t buy the Day Pass, that way lies madness, but get yourself something nice. Travel is totally glam, but sometimes, it’s wearing and takes a toll. Give yourself a break. Book the pod for a few hours and make yourself human again.

Plus, you can use that refreshed energy for complaint letters to the airlines on the long flight home.

Airport hotel hookup: a true story

She was very blond and very thin–probably pushing fifty but still sexy in a silver, sleeveless, summer dress that cut off mid-thigh. I had met her back in the line at Managua when they first announced that our flight was delayed . . . for six hours. We groaned in harmony and commiserated: I just wanted to sleep in my own bed that night–she had to make a meeting in Detroit.

He was maybe twenty-five: scruffy from a week of not shaving and deeply tanned from the August sun. His black-brown surfer hair was pushed behind his ears and his board shorts hung low, showing an inch-wide band of boxer briefs. He piped in his own frustrations with a vague accent–half-Latino, I guessed. We were three strangers trapped in a Latin American airport, consoling one another with testimonials of just how much the airline sucked.

Armed with ten-dollar food vouchers, we hunted lunch in a Managua food court. I got mine to go but the two of them found a table and offered to watch one another’s bags. Isn’t it funny how only after a bit of conversation we’ll gladly entrust our stuff with a person who only minutes ago was a perfect stranger?

We eventually made it onto the plane, then sat on the runway for another hour before taking off. At the ding of the seat belt sign, that blonde woman was up again, hovering down the aisle and leaning over his seat, spilling her neckline wide open and flashing her white teeth inside a moving frame of soft pink lipstick. Every ninety seconds or so, she tossed back a burst of long and shiny hair before letting loose with laughter that was as much lighthearted as it was rehearsed. The surfer guy mumbled back his approval, like a hunkier version of Charlie Brown’s unseen teacher.Wait–were they, like, together? I wondered. I often miss these things even as I’m watching them unfold in front of me. They had to be together–this mismatched pair seemed so comfortable and so into each other–but no, they were clearly traveling alone when we were checking in. I remembered them trading their stories early on, asking, “So where are you from?” and, “Where did you stay?” I stared long enough to feel just a little embarrassed before burying myself back into my book. There is such a thing as people watching but there is also such a thing as peeping, stalking, staring and just being a creep. I pretended to mind my own business in the back of the plane but couldn’t help feeling their chatty warmth.

It was midnight in Miami when we landed. At least two hundred passengers were prodded into a line by a sourpuss schoolmarm disguised as a surly airline employee. Most airports feel like refugee camps, even more so when you wait for an hour in line for two bits of card-stock promising food and shelter–in my case a voucher for Holiday Inn.

Surfer dude carried Blondie’s bags out to the curb. Watching the two of them was like watching magnets dancing–pushing then pulling away from one another without ever actually touching. In the glow of an airport shuttle sign, she seemed blonder and he seemed tanner–she kept giggling while he pretended to protest with his giant surfer smile. Their flirting was overt, consensual, and unabashed. It was also fun. For me, the play-acting offered a kind of cheap late-night entertainment after a long day that had failed to entertain. This was better than hotel TV and without any dumb commercials.

I checked in sleepily and asked for a 5 AM wake-up call. As I wheeled my suitcase squeakily across the just-mopped floor, I caught the two of them at it again, huddled in the lobby sharing the world’s biggest secret; still not touching while perusing day-old pastries at the bar. It was one in the morning and they were sipping espressos. What was that about?

Wait. Were they gonna, you know–do it? Beneath the fatigue of air travel and the depression that follows so many long delays, I felt a spark of sultry intrigue towards my fellow travelers. Was it possible? Did that happen? Could two random people just meet up on a plane and then go off and mate? Exhaustion made me more naïve than normal, but I couldn’t stop thinking of those two.

I slid my key card into the slot and then pushed, taking in my sterile but comfy room with a view of a street-lit parking lot. I brushed my teeth and confronted my droopy face in the bathroom mirror, feeling sad and alone in an airport hotel. Of course it happens–all the time. I considered my two fellows travelers in a sexual situation: the half-Latin surfer with curly black chest hair; the blonde MILF who looked like she could be a newscaster on some local affiliate. I considered all the children conceived from these travel exchanges, both real and potential. Human lives that sprung up from chance meetings in airport hotels–during blizzards, breakdowns, strikes and long delays. I wondered about the front desk and what they saw; the secrets that housekeeping never tell.

We joke about the mile high club but what about the casual layover club? Back in the days of passenger ships, port cities had a reputation for that sort of thing–I’m thinking New Orleans, San Francisco, Rio and Bombay. Airports play the same role and airport hotels make it that much easier. Obviously, sex happens everywhere but it’s the travel element that I find so intriguing: that two people’s missed connections offer the chance for another kind of connection.

We were a random group of travelers that night: business people, vacationers, families, and flight crews. Everyday we all live separate lives at disparate addresses but for that moment, we were all bedding down in the same spot for a few hours of rest before our next transit. This was Miami but surely every night, the scenario gets reproduced in hundreds of airport hotels all around the world. Random sexual encounters enlivened by the randomness of air travel today.

The wake up call worked too well. I showered and dressed, then waited alone on the curb to go back to the airport and start the process all over again–the long lines, the taking off and putting on shoes, a disappointing breakfast. Airports are awful.

From the darkness, the blonde emerged with a face full of fresh makeup that spelled out her determination to get home. She sighed when she saw me, then fiddled with her purse. Behind her walked the young man–a man at least half her age, I thought. He wore the same clothes as the night before, except for a baseball cap that was flung backwards on his head.

There was no way anything happened. I chided myself for being so dirty-minded–a typical male with sex on the brain. I explained the last night’s events away: the two of them had merely hit it off. They probably spent much of the night talking at the bar, sharing their innermost feelings, finding some common bond and having the kind of memorable travel moment one has out on the road.

And then there it was, like a morning newspaper headline. I saw it clearly, despite the darkness of a pre-dawn shuttle back to the terminal: the over-dyed blonde lady brushing her French tip nails across the small of surfer dude’s lower back, secretly, knowingly.

They totally hooked up. I knew it.