Traveling between our US world and the Greek expat life we've chosen is a long haul no matter the route. We've come to see it as simply a condition of choosing to keep a toehold in two far distant points in the world. We make the trip back to the United States once a year. . .
|A true long-haul flight between our worlds|
Every once in a while, The Scout manages to find a route that shaves a bit of time off the trip while saving us some money. He had done so this year. . .or so it seemed in the beginning.
|Gates at Kalamata International Airport|
First, a bit of background for our tale: British Airways (BA) flies a couple of times a week into our small Kalamata International Airport, a rather third world looking place that has two side-by-side departure gates, Gate 1 and Gate 2. It is international because flights from other countries land here.
Its selling points are that it is easy to navigate, parking is 3 euros a day, it's close to our Greek home, and we can fly to Seattle from there, with a connection at London's Heathrow airport.
We were flying round-trip Kalamata -Seattle - Kalamata although the price savings required a small, but manageable travel blip on our return flight. We would fly from Seattle to nearby Portland, Oregon -- a 30-minute flight -- on BA's partner airline, Alaska Air, and catch the BA flight to London from there.
|First leg: Manson to Seattle over Washington Mountain passes|
Sounded simple enough at the time we made the reservation. We'd leave our Washington home at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Pacific Northwest time, make the four-hour drive to Seattle, have a few hours of time to spare at the airport, then some 20+ hours later arrive back at our Stone House on the Hill about 9 Saturday night, Greek time.
The Plans began Unraveling.
No matter how many times you confirm, recheck, and double-check travel plans these days, the travel gods still rule. And sometimes they need a few laughs. This was to be one of those times.
Our plans began unraveling when we found the British Airlines check-in counter at SeaTac closed. A sign on the counter said it would open 3.5 hours before the next flight, problem was, it didn't say when that would be. A quick internet check showed it departing at 8 p.m. which meant the counter would open too late for us to check in for that little connecting flight to Portland.
|Three heads are better than one|
Another woman traveler was in the same predicament. So, the three of us set off for the Alaska Air counters (at the opposite end of the airport). There, among the dozens of self-check-in kiosks, we finally spotted two humans staffing the Business Class counter. The woman traveler went to one human, and we went to the other.
Yes, we were assured, they could check us in! Problem was that they couldn't find our reservations nor the flight that British Air had booked us on to Portland. They called in reinforcements - three staff worked on our predicament and two worked on hers. Finally, the five figured it out, tickets to Portland were issued and our bags were loaded on the conveyor belt.
|Bags were heading back. . .were we?|
While watching our bags depart, my mobile device pinged. An email from British Air had arrived saying our flight to London had been delayed by little over two hours, 'sorry for the inconvenience'.
Our new London arrival time would be 2:15 pm. Saturday - 15 minutes after our flight for Kalamata left.
The Domino Effect
Ever notice that when things start going wrong it is like dominoes falling? Well, that was certainly the case with this trip:
We were hiking back to the other end of the terminal, where the fast security line was located; glad to be part of the US trusted traveler program which allows us to use the speedy service. With all the check-in confusion that relaxing cushion of time we'd allowed ourselves was gone. We needed to get to the gate for the Portland flight. Wouldn't you know? The speedy line was also being used by long-haul flight crews. We waited for some 80 crew members to be checked in before the 10 or so of us 'trusted travelers' were allowed through.
Planning to have snacks and beverages at the airport, we hadn't eaten lunch. But no time for that now, we'd be lucky to at least get a final cup of Starbucks coffee before our flight boarded.
At the Starbucks counter a young man with bright blue hair - a color that rivaled that of the saleswoman in the phone store in my last post - took my order for a double latte. As I handed him my stack of dollars (it cost just under $7) he looked at the currency as if it were something repulsive and said, 'Oh, I can't take cash. . .'
Okay. . .in retrospect, I could have dug out a credit card but that blank stare he gave me and my cash, simply broke the proverbial camel's back with the straw, 'Cancel the order!' I snarled as I stomped from the counter.
The Scout was disappointed at my failed mission. I assured him there was coffee on the plane. Our cheerful flight attendant promised it as soon as we were airborne. A few minutes into the flight, she picked up the microphone and, looking towards us, made a sad face, while announcing that our flight was going so fast there would be no beverage service.
And we are finally off . . .late as promised
|Better late than never - we were off!|
In Portland, the BA representative issued us tickets all the way to Kalamata while noting we would miss that flight for which she had given us tickets. Ground staff in London would figure it out for us, she said with a smile.
We actually learned what our new travel plans would be shortly before we arrived at Heathrow. Our flight attendant told us we'd be spending a night in London and flying to Kalamata the next day.
|Flight connections madhouse at Heathrow|
So many on our flight had missed connections that BA staff had set up a table outside the jetway and handed out dozens of new tickets from it. Hotel, food and transportation vouchers had to be obtained at the Flight Connections desk, a place I'd call a centralized complaint/hysteria counter a train ride away in the massive Terminal 5. At the counter we fell in line with the dozens of others seeking vouchers.
Nearly an hour later with vouchers in hand, we were off to the bus stop where we'd just missed the hotel bus we needed. Nearly another hour later we were arriving at the nearby Radisson Blue Edwardian Hotel. It was 5 p.m.
At The Hotel - The Dominoes continued to fall
|Lobby Radisson Blue Edwardian Hotel Heathrow|
The opulent wood-paneled lobby adorned with a massive crystal chandelier was pretty welcome to these now weary travelers. Maybe this layover wasn't such a bad thing, we thought, until. . .
'I am unable to give you a key to your room,' said the smiling desk clerk, explaining a system failure involving electrical and computer stuff had shut down the hotel's vital systems, like that of making room keys. Handing us a piece of plastic the size of a credit card, she said, 'This is the master key for the room. It is the only one that opens the door. If you lose it, you won't be able to get into the room and we won't be able to get you into the room.'
You'd better believe we treated it with respect.
|Plenty of vouchers - too bad the hotel wouldn't take them|
The hotel's restaurant looked inviting. Called Steak and Lobster, it offered some nice menu choices and to our amazement the vouchers we each had were so generous that they covered even the most expensive menu item. While sipping a pre-dinner glass of wine, The Scout asked if reservations were required. The good news, we didn't need reservations. The bad news, they wouldn't take the vouchers -- in either of the hotel's two restaurants (and not because of the system failure).
It turned out that a 21-person tour group had also missed a flight and BA sent them to this hotel as well. The hotel had opened a conference room for us all, offering a buffet table meal of beef stew, mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli and cauliflower in exchange for the 23 pound ($28US) per person voucher.
That proverbial straw snapped again. . .We ate in the restaurant on our own dime. . .and had a fabulous meal while vowing never to return to this hotel no matter what the reason we might find ourselves overnighting at Heathrow.
Destination: Kalamata ~ Delayed
|A new day. . .a new delay|
|Kalamata's runway - finally!|
Ready to leap out of my seat with joy when we touched down at Kalamata, my happiness was momentary . . .
With the small terminal some distance ahead, our plane stopped on the runway. 'Folks,' said the pilot, 'we've got too many planes in and have to wait for one to take off before I can enter the apron.' Within minutes an Austrian Airlines plane raced past us on the runway and was airborne.
But still, we didn't move.
|So close. . .Kalamata airport terminal|
'Folks, again sorry for the delay,' began the pilot, 'but we've still got too many planes on the apron. It is going to be awhile. I am turning off the engine, feel free to come visit the cockpit, use the bathrooms, as it is going to be an hour.'
We both later admitted to having thoughts of hijacking the parked plane, forcing open the door and escaping using the emergency evacuation slide. Luckily planes were shifted, and we were at the terminal 45 minutes later.
Moral of the Story: Travel Gods need their jollies so be prepared.
It's been two weeks so we can tell this story and finally find some humor in it. And those of you who are looking for a reason, not to travel, you can't use this as a case in point, as it was an anomaly (we hope!). We've never had so many dominos of disruption falling on a trip.
We do tell it with a tag line of 'be prepared' when you travel these days. Prepare for delays, detours and other disruptions.
* Pack your carryon for an overnight stay. I always pack change of clothes and toiletries in our carryon bags, 'just in case' and 'never' need them. This time they came in handy.
*Don't assume there will be time to grab food and drink. Pack a snack with you.
* Have a 'disaster fund' for emergencies, like needing to pay for an unplanned meal or hotel room along the way. As we learned, even with vouchers, you may end up paying for items.
*And travel with some means of accessing the internet at wherever your destination might be. Airport staff and help desks are becoming scarce. There is an expectation that you will turn to the internet to check in, to find answers to questions, and to solve your own problems. I can't imagine traveling without a mobile device or laptop nowadays.
|The Stone House on the Hill|
With those words of advice, I will end our travel tale. We are home on the hill in Greece and have no desire to see an airport anytime soon.
We wonder how many of you have had travel plans upended in your recent travels. Please share your stories in the comments below or shoot us an email. Let us know the problem and how it was resolved. If enough of you participate, I will use your tales in the next blog post!
Thanks for being with us today. Safe travels to you and yours!