Weekly Column By: Sharon Byrne
I just returned from the Holiday Trip From Hell. You’ve probably had that trip, or one like it, when everything that could go wrong, does. This one started with getting drenched in a monsoon, with luggage, on a beach in the US Virgin Islands on Christmas Eve, and ended in New York for New Year’s Eve in freezing temps. Everything was magical right until Winter Storm Hercules hit January 3rd.
The East Coast is used to winter storms. They have ample equipment to clear roads and runways. I confirmed our fight was leaving on schedule Saturday, so we arrived at LaGuardia at 4 AM to take our 5:45 AM flight back to California.
It was melee at the airport. Flights were cancelled, seemingly randomly, and anger was mounting. United declared our tickets void. No offer of a hotel or other flight. Stunned, I asked could we get on standby on any flight heading west. No, we can¹t help you. Call the United number, which I did, and was put on hold for an estimated wait time of 55 minutes. How can an airline just void your tickets, and offer no options other than you gotta¹ book new one way flights across the country to get back home????
Reality sunk in. We were stranded in New York. In 12 degree weather.
I ordered my daughter to get out her ipad and start looking for one-way flights out of New York while I got on the phone to the travel agent. There weren¹t any, of course. But wait, this is the East Coast you can get to other cities like Baltimore, Boston or DC. Going south seemed most sensible. We started looking at trains. I even typed in Greyhound.com on my cell phone. Nothing got us back out west in less than 5-6 days.
We found a couple of one-way flights out of DC that would bypass the next storm hitting the Midwest, going through Dallas, dropping us in Reno, where we’d have to rent a car and drive to Santa Barbara. To get to DC, we’d have to drive the icy roads out of New York down the New Jersey turnpike and the I95.
While we were furiously booking new flights, rental cars, and hotels sitting on the cold bustling floor of La Guardia, I was reminded that no matter how bad you think it is, it could always be worse. I saw a young woman whose flight to Indianapolis was cancelled, and she had no credit card with which to rent a car. All she had taken with her on this trip was her debit card, as she was visiting family. Plus there was a new storm breaking in the Midwest, and she¹d be heading right into it.
My daughter was approached by a security guard, with a crying woman in tow. She was wearing summer gear, and shivering. She was returning from a cruise, on their airline, and they¹d lost all record of her flight, and her luggage. She had one scarf. That was her winter gear. Her medication was in the lost baggage. The security guard gingerly asked my daughter if they could borrow her ipad for a moment to look up a phone number for the cruise line. They called, and the cruise line sent her on to a flight.
That security guard was the lone helpful employee we saw at LaGuardia.
The car rental and hotel were similarly staffed with unhelpful people. My travel agent booked us into a DC hotel a day later than we needed. The hotel could not change the date on the reservation unless I went back through the travel agent. I found it surreal to be standing in the hotel lobby, talking to a hotel employee, who was powerless to act in any way on behalf of the hotel.
It felt like the former Yugoslavia, a nightmare trip I did as a teen. Throw in those lovely encounters with TSA, and you¹ve captured the experience perfectly.
Dude! What happened to my country??? The US is can-do land, right? This is where problems are opportunities, creatively disguised, rather than yet another hardship to bear up under, as my UK-based family views the world.
I had not planned on showing my daughter the Eastern Seaboard on this trip, but hey, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade, right? That drive out of New York was a nail-biter. The roads were still very treacherous. Every time we crossed a bridge over a river, I held my breath.
It was not until we hit Dallas and then Reno that things returned to US normalcy in travel. The hotel clerk in Reno sent up complimentary bathrobes and soft drinks on hearing our tale of woe. Pappasito¹s in the DFW airport (THE best Tex Mex) greeted us warmly and gave me a huge Texas ŒRita.
Out West, things were still very much can-do. Maybe it¹s an East Coast Snow-Jam thing that made all travel employees temporarily mutate into Soviet-style government workers. I don¹t know, but I kissed the ground when we crossed into California. The final count: 3 rental cars, 17 hours of driving, 5 flights, 11 states, 6 rivers crossed, 3 taxis, 3 ferries, multiple subways. The good news: no more single digit highs. No more snow, arctic winds and brutal wind chills. No more putting on multiple layers just to go outside.
Dang it’s good to be home!