One’s enjoyment of a vacation often varies inversely with the quality of the trip back home. With that principle in mind, I’ve decided to begin the stories of my adventures in Alaska at the end.
My parents and I had spent roughly two weeks in Alaska, one on land and another at sea on a cruise ship. The ship’s final destination was Vancouver, and I was scheduled to fly back to D.C. from Vancouver at 11:15 a.m. on June 1.
I had booked my flight using frequent flyer miles on United Airlines. (Yes, United is a known vacation saboteur, but I have a good reason for continuing to fly with them. I paid for my divorce using my United credit card, which means I need to fly the world’s circumference at least six more times before I’ve put a serious dent in my miles. )
The following timeline describes how my return trip went.
- 9 a.m.: I arrive at Vancouver Intl Airport for 11:15 a.m. departure on United.
- 9:45 a.m.: Fully checked in for my flight, I shop, wanting to spend my remaining Canadian dollars. I purchase maple-glazed peanuts for one friend, dark chocolates for another, and ice wine for a third.
- 10:45 a.m.: We board the flight. As passengers busy themselves trying to wedge carry-on bags the size of dumpsters in the overhead bin, a constant drilling sound emanates from somewhere near the wings. I am vaguely aware that this might not be a good thing.
- 11:30 a.m.: The drilling sound has not abated since we boarded. Like most of us passengers, United was trying to ignore it, but eventually they are forced to investigate. We remain on the plane.
- 12:15 p.m.: The pilot tells us they’ve found a problem with the hydraulics. (Hydraulics matter only if you value a crash-less flight more than an on-time departure.) United cancels the flight. A full load of passengers is barfed out of the plane and back into the gate area, swamping the two agents assigned to deal with the canceled flight. The gate agents, seeing an opportunity to cut the line in half by doing exactly nothing, suggest that passengers use their phones and call customer services instead of queuing. (I’d seen this coming and had called United before I’d even deplaned.)
- 1:15 p.m.: I finish tussling with a customer service representative who struggled to understand why I might not want to take an 8 p.m. flight that would send me back to DC by way of Los Angeles, tacking on 6 hours of waiting time in Vancouver, an extra 4 hours of flight time, and a red-eye. She reluctantly puts me on a 2:45 p.m. flight to Chicago that gives me 10 minutes to connect. I’m happy with this, knowing that I won’t make my connection but that my chances of getting home quickly are way better from Chicago than LA. I ask where my bag will go. She tells me I have to get in line to find out. New flight arrangements in hand, I hang up and take my place as the very last person in the line.
- 1:16: United announces that they are getting a new plane for the canceled flight, and what do you know, we can all just hop on that plane, and head for Chicago at 2:30 p.m. like none of this ever happened. Unless you already rebooked yourself, that is, in which case you have to un-book yourself from the new flight and re-re-book yourself on the old one. (Airlines love to punish passengers who show initiative.) I do this and get a reservation on the “original” flight, still hoping to make my connection at 9 p.m.
- 1:50: I arrive at the new gate somewhat peckish but without time to buy something to eat. I break into the maple-glazed peanuts, convincing myself that if I only eat a few, maybe I can still give them to my friend. I’ll just need to find alternative packaging when I get home.
- 2:45: Our plane has not arrived, much less departed. I continue to eat the peanuts.
- 3:15: Our plane shows up and we begin to board; however, United’s computer system has gone down. What with passengers having un-booked, re-booked and re-re-booked, the crew has no idea who is supposed to have seats on this bird. TSA won’t let us leave until United figures this out. United resorts to a manual method and breaks out pencils and an abacus. I’ve eaten so many peanuts that the remaining quantity would fit in a shot glass with room to spare.
- 4:45: United finishes the manifest. I finish the peanuts. The chocolates sense that they are in imminent danger.
- 4:46: Air Traffic control puts us in a hold. There’s Weather in Chicago. I break into the chocolates.
- 5:25 p.m.: We leave Vancouver.
- 6:45 p.m.: The flight attendants come through, offering meals for purchase. I refuse on principle and dine on dark chocolates, which I chase with ice wine.
- 11:15: We encounter more Weather in Chicago, causing a slight reroute.
- 11:45 p.m.: We land in Chicago and are instructed to go to United Customer Service for an Important Update.
- 11:55 p.m.: The agent at United customer service importantly updates me that United has “courtesy rebooked” me on a 6 a.m. flight to D.C., and they have graciously gotten me a hotel room a 10-minute shuttle ride away. I point out that a 6 a.m. flight requires a 4:45 arrival at O’Hare, which gives me 4 hours and 45 minutes to sleep if I go narcoleptic mid-sentence, and 20-30 minutes of shuttle logistics will eat into that, whereas the airport Hilton is just a few steps away. A supervisor overhears this conversation and, fearing that I might do worse than go narcoleptic at that moment, wisely offers me a room at the Hilton. United also offers me not one, but two, meal vouchers for my troubles. Because we’re not allowed to get our bags, United has given us an overnight kit. It is “eco-friendly,” guaranteeing that I will not wind up feeling clean even if I weren’t wearing the same clothes I’ve had on for the past 16 hours, which I am.
- 12:15 a.m.: I check into the Hilton. I request a 3:45 a.m. wakeup call. Again feeling slightly peckish, I pull out the vouchers, intending to call room service. That’s when I see that the combined total of said vouchers is $14. Knowing that it costs more than that just to consider calling room service, I decide that United won’t mind if I pillage the mini-bar snacks.
- 4:30 a.m.: I return to O’Hare.
- 5:00 a.m.: I blow the entire $14 on a latte, an apple and a banana.
- 5:30 a.m.: I board.
- 6:00 a.m.: The plane takes off, precisely on time.
- 9:00 a.m.: I land at DCA. My prodigal bag, which was brand new before this trip and in outstanding shape when I dropped it off in Vancouver, returns with pieces of plastic hanging off of it, handle stuck in the partially upright position. It looks every bit like I feel. Armed with nothing more than three hours of sleep and yesterday’s clothes, I start my work week.
I think social media consultant and blogger Karl Hakkareinan had it right when he said, “No vacation goes unpunished.” As I share more stories from my time in Alaska, I’ll let you decide whether my punishment fit the crime.