Travel Tribulations

Never have I been so happy to be in Kentucky before! (Actually, never have I been in Kentucky before, but that’s not the point.)

We were supposed to fly out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, on Tuesday. We would change planes in Houston on our way to Orlando, where we would spend about twelve hours at my parents’ house before flying on to Indianapolis. Then we would rent a car, drive to Kentucky, and spend two nights and a day there enjoying Mammoth Caves. After that we would drive on to Illinois to spend a few days with Floyd’s Great Aunt Wilma, drive back to Indianapolis, and fly to Florida for a week or so with my parents before eventually flying back to California via Denver this time.

It all seemed like a good idea when we planned it. Even the part where we would start our trip on Continental Airlines and then switch to Air Tran in Orlando. Why not? We got the best deal that way. So, we spent most of the frequent flyer miles we’ve been saving for the last several years and bought our plane tickets, using more miles to pay for the hotel rooms and rental car in advance.

My sister, who lives in Orange County, dropped Floyd and me off at the John Wayne Airport on Monday morning. We got there in plenty of time, checked in, and eventually boarded the plane, where we sat. And sat. And were told by the pilot that there was a problem with the number 2 engine that would take a few extra minutes to check out. So we sat some more, until we realized that at this point, we were probably going to miss our connection in Houston.

Without cell phones, how would we call my mom, who was expecting to meet us at the Orlando Airport at a certain time? We could use a pay phone later when we did get to Houston, but I didn’t have her number except saved on Skype and in my Yahoo address book. Aha! I could look it up on my brand new Kindle 3G! So I pulled out my Kindle and got to my Yahoo account, but couldn’t look up her number because it couldn’t open more than one window at once. Not to worry; I sent her a quick email to let her know that our flight had been delayed and that I’d tell her when we knew more.

We waited on the plane a little longer, and then the pilot came back on the intercom and told us the problem was bigger than they had thought and the flight was going to have to be completely cancelled. All the passengers would be let off the plane to go collect our luggage, and then we were to go back to the Continental check-in counter so they could arrange other ways to get us all to our destinations.

Floyd and I decided to split up; he would get the luggage while I hurried ahead to get to the front of the line. A good plan, but at least a dozen people in front of us had thought of the same thing. The line at the counter hardly moved at all, and by the time Floyd joined me 15 minutes or so later, I had estimated that at the current rate, it would take four hours for us to get to the front. I pitied the poor people at the back, who would be there for a couple days if nothing changed.

Well, they eventually got more employees to the Continental Counter, and we only had to stand there for about two hours before it was our turn. But the waiting was only just beginning. A helpful employee named May looked up our information and tried her best, but no flights she could offer us would get us to Houston in time to get us to Florida in time to catch our Air Tran flight to Indianapolis. She let us use her phone and asked us to check with Capital One (the source of our frequent flyer miles and through which we had booked the trip) to see if we could postpone the Orlando-to-Indianapolis leg.

I kid you not, Floyd was on the phone with them for nearly an hour. He kept getting put on hold while people checked to see how they could help us, and they kept on not being helpful. Meanwhile, May was still looking on her computer to see if she had any other options for us, but because Continental and Air Tran are not partners, she could only do so much. Eventually Floyd reported that the person on the other line had said we might have to pay a “service fee” to reschedule our flight, but they weren’t sure how much yet. The next report floored me. Apparently the only option the Air Tran people could give us was to completely cancel our original ticket (nonrefundable since this was pretty much the last minute) and book us a new one, which would also need to be paid for. And again, since it was pretty much the last minute, the cost would be sky-high. As in, five hundred dollars per ticket!!

I was horrified to hear that Air Tran wanted an extra thousand dollars for something that wasn’t our fault, AND that we would lose all the frequent flyer miles we had already paid. The only other option was to use every last frequent flyer mile that we still had to buy one of the tickets and to pay $500 for the second one. Just as bad. At that point I was about ready to cancel that part of our trip and just take Amtrak or the Greyhound bus from Orlando instead. But Floyd said that the unhelpful person on the other line had told him that if we did that, the airline would mark us down as having cancelled our trip, and we wouldn’t have our tickets to fly back to Orlando afterwards. Not only that, but the hotels and rental car were nonrefundable too.

Near tears in frustration, I explained to May (who had stepped away for a moment and had just come back to our spot at the counter) that Air Tran wanted a thousand dollars to reschedule our flight. May  was almost as outraged as Floyd and I were, and she got back on her computer to try to help us some other way. Floyd asked the lady on the phone to wait while we discussed our options, and then he and I held our breath while May kept tapping away. We never found out exactly what she did that she hadn’t tried before, but in a few minutes she got excited and announced that she might have something for us. She got on her phone and told somebody that she needed two seats on “that United flight from LAX to Orlando later tonight”. Then she scurried around and printed two shuttle tickets for us, and also a couple of free meal passes to apologize for the inconvenience; and she took us to the United counter to print our boarding passes and to make sure there was a printed record that we had already paid for our check-in luggage. Along the way she explained with an air of apologetic embarrassment that she had “stolen” the seats and that her boss was going to be mad in the morning. We never found out exactly what that meant, and we protested that we didn’t want her to get in trouble for our sakes, but she assured us that it was fine.

So we got on a shuttle van headed for LAX, and on the way I pulled out my oh-so-handy Kindle once again to email Mom about the latest turn of events.

The (new) problem was, even though this new flight was going to take us straight to Orlando, it was a “red-eye”. It would get to Orlando at 6:45 the next morning, exactly 65 minutes before our 7:50 flight to Indianapolis was supposed to leave – assuming both flights were on time. So there was no way Floyd and I would be able to go to my parents’ house in between flights as originally planned. Actually, we realized with growing alarm that there was no guarantee we’d even make our Air Tran flight, especially if United was late or we had to pick up our baggage in between.

We got to LAX and checked in at the United counter, where we asked if they could check our bags all the way to Indianapolis. First the guy said yes, to our great relief, but our hearts sank when he looked at his monitor again and muttered, “Oops.” Turns out that wouldn’t be possible because United and Air Tran aren’t partners. I had never realized how important the “partner” thing was before, but it was turning out to be a big headache. Well, we would just have to hope we’d land promptly in Orlando, have time to collect our luggage, find the Air Tran counter, check our bags in for the next flight, and be at the gate ready to board, all in 65 minutes.

Waiting to board our United flight, I used my Kindle once again to look up the Air Tran website. There I discovered that customers are required to check in their luggage no later than 45 minutes before the flight leaves. YIKES! That meant we only had 20 minutes to get off the plane, get our luggage from the carousel, find our way to the Air Tran counter, and get to the front of the check-in line, of course assuming we didn’t arrive late.

I tried unsuccessfully to find a map of the Orlando airport so we could at least study our route in preparation for racing through it, and a conversation with an airport employee left us even more concerned. (He didn’t seem to think we had a very big chance of making it, though he said we’d find an airport map in the in-flight magazine after we boarded.)

Back on the Air Tran website, I succeeded in going through the online check-in process (including paying for our check-in luggage again), though there was no way to print our boarding passes from the Kindle. But we hoped that having checked in already would make the Air Tran folks a little more kindly disposed toward us if we showed up at the counter a little less than 45 minutes before the flight. We also agreed that Floyd would once again go get our luggage while I hurried to get in line, though of course I wouldn’t actually be able to check us in before he joined me.

We waited and waited to board our United flight in LAX, and then the United guy at the boarding gate announced that the reason we hadn’t started boarding already was because the flight crew hadn’t arrived yet. They were on another flight that had just landed (late), and they would be there as soon as possible. Floyd and I exchanged nervous glances at that. We also felt uncomfortable because the flight was completely full with a stand-by list, and two more people who had been hoping to fly stand-by would have been able to if not for us. Maybe that was what May had meant by “stealing” the seats. Oh well, there was nothing we could do about it now. And at least we had heard an announcement that our plane was supposed to arrive six minutes earlier than originally stated, so hopefully the flight crew’s delay wouldn’t eat into much more than those extra six minutes.

Finally the flight crew showed up and boarded, and a few minutes later passengers were finally allowed to board. The guy at the gate asked everyone to please find their seats as quickly as possible and not block the aisles when they put their luggage into the overhead compartments, so that everyone could get by and the plane could leave right away since it was already running late. Well, it seemed to me that the line had never moved more slowly, and that I’d never seen more people blocking others’ ways to arrange their luggage. Even when we finally found our seats, it turned out we were in the wrong ones and we had to wait for a gap in the line to step back into the aisle and move one row forward. We were thankful that June had found us spots in Economy Plus (a free upgrade!), where there was a lot more leg room.

By the time everyone was settled and the plane finally took off, we were thirty minutes behind schedule, and the in-flight magazine had no helpful airport map after all. At least I was able to stop stressing about the possibility of missing our connection, since it was now obvious that we would miss it no matter what. We would just have to make a new plan when we got to Orlando, but although there was no way I was going to pay an extra thousand dollars for our next flight, what else could we do? And then it occurred to me that if we were lucky, our next flight might possibly be running late too, in which case we would still have a chance. That was enough to get me hoping (and thus worrying) again, even though I tried to just pray about it all and then put it out of my mind.

Eventually I was able to get to sleep, even though Floyd and I discovered that in Economy Plus the seats don’t recline at all. Bummer. But the next thing we knew they were turning the lights back on and announcing that we were on final approach to Orlando, and it was just after 7:00 a.m. Apparently we had made up a little of the lost time in the air.

When we got off the plane and realized how big the Orlando Airport is, we decided we’d better stick together until we figured out where everything was. We hurried to the carousel, and luckily it didn’t take long for our two suitcases to show up. We followed signs and bystanders’ directions toward the Air Tran counter, praying and running most of the way. I sprinted ahead to get a good spot in line while Floyd followed with the heavier luggage.

The signs took me to a place where we would have to stand in a line to go through security, and I stopped at the back of the slow-moving line to catch my breath and wait for Floyd. But when I turned around, I saw to my alarm that he was no longer behind me. I waited and waited and let other people go ahead, but Floyd didn’t show up. Where could he be? I asked an airport employee if this was the only way through security, and he pointed to another place where people could get in a different line. I thought maybe Floyd had somehow lost sight of me and gone to the other line, but he wasn’t there either. I returned to the first line and he still wasn’t there.

By now I was getting really concerned. I knew he couldn’t have gone through without my knowing, because we had to show our boarding passes and ID, and I was carrying both our IDs. (We didn’t actually have boarding passes, but I hoped the security people would understand when I explained our situation.) All I could think of was that maybe he had accidentally dropped something or realized he’d left something on the plane and hurried back to get it, knowing he’d catch up with me eventually in line.

Well, I paced back and forth between the two lines for maybe ten minutes, and in the process found a monitor listing all outgoing flights and their status. Sure enough, the Air Tran one we wanted was scheduled to leave on time. Uh-oh.

Suddenly, to my surprise, Floyd reappeared from a completely unexpected direction, with even more unexpected news. I had gone the wrong way (how was I supposed to know that, since Air Tran was one of the airlines listed above the security area where I was waiting?), and someone else had told Floyd the right way to the Air Tran counter we wanted. He had already been there (it was just around the corner) and had spoken to an airline employee at the counter, who had told him that although it was now too late to check in for our scheduled flight, there was room on the next one, and we could leave an hour later instead, at no extra cost.

Wow. It was almost like one of those stories where the author doesn’t know how to end it, so she just inserts some cheesy solution and ties up the loose ends so abruptly that the reader is left sitting there going, “Wait. After all that, this is it?”

This apparently was indeed it. Floyd took me back to the counter, we stood in line and checked our luggage in, got our boarding passes, and wandered off toward our gate still reeling at how perfectly God had answered our prayers. On the way to the gate, we saw the plane we ought to have been on taxiing out toward the runway without us. I hope there were two standby passengers on it, thanking God that our seats had been available.

Our flight from Orlando to Indianapolis was uneventful, except that Floyd was concerned the rental car we had reserved might not still be available if we were an hour late. But after everything we had been through, that possibility seemed too small to worry about (much).

Having worried so much and slept so little on our red-eye, we spent most of this flight asleep. After we landed (and I added the Indianapolis airport to my list of global favorites), we decided to use our free meal vouchers now that we actually had time and were hungry. So we bought hot dogs and chili and a Starbucks coffee and some muffins and fruit to help carry us through the next couple of days, and brought it all with us as we headed down to find our luggage.

Having spent the extra time getting grub, we were the last ones from our flight to arrive at the carousel, which was empty and had stopped. We weren’t worried, though, since there was an Air Tran luggage room right there, and we could see several suitcases on the floor inside as we approached. Sure enough, ours were among them, but the lady behind the desk looked at us funny when we asked for them. “Are you sure? Because the luggage tags on them say they’re supposed to go back on the flight to Orlando.”

Floyd and I were shocked, but we bent down to look, and sure enough, the tags stuck on by the Air Tran folks back at the counter in Orlando did indeed say that they were supposed to go to Orlando via Indianapolis. What in the world?! Fortunately the lady here had thought that seemed a little odd too, and had pulled them aside instead of putting them back on the plane. We were truly thankful she had done so, especially since we’d gotten there late. We could easily have arrived at her desk only to find out that our bags – containing everything we needed for the rest of our trip – had returned to Florida without us. Or even if they had still been there, red tape and airport security issues could have prevented us from being able to claim them. But no, God was helping us out once again, and the lady gave our suitcases right back. She just asked us to let her peel off and keep the tags so her office would have them as a record of what had happened.

Bags in hand, we found a bench where we could sit down and eat our hard-earned free chili and hot dog and breathe a sigh of relief before going in search of our rental car. Which did happen to still be available. And we drove away thanking God from the bottoms of our hearts for how he had worked everything out.

We enjoyed the scenic drive from Indiana to Kentucky (although I slept on and off through most of it), successfully found our hotel room, and hit the sack early. This morning we visited the gorgeous Mammoth Caves and are now back in the hotel ready to hit the sack again. Tomorrow we’ll drive on to visit Aunt Wilma, and in a few days we’ll be ready to do the whole thing again in reverse. At least, as far as Orlando. Hopefully we won’t have any more adventures before we get there! Or before we fly back to California the week after that.

It’s after midnight here, so I’d better go. Tomorrow will be another long day of (hopefully uneventful) travel.

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