Power-Tripping TSA Hulk Lady vs. Jet-lagged Culture-Shocked Ginger, and Other Tales from my 50+ Hour Transit Nightmare Home from Greece

I don’t know what time it is anywhere. I don’t even know what day it is. I’m in the Philadelphia airport after over 50 hours in transit (with more to come), and if any of you have a travel story worse than the one below, I will be eager to hear it!

Day One

My first flight was on Aegean Air out of Thessaloniki, on the morning of June 30th. (I’m laughing out loud out of jet-lagged hysteria while typing this, because it now seems like years ago.) After a solid 48 hours of mostly unsuccessful trying not to cry, my things were packed, all but the last goodbyes were said, my ride to the airport was waiting outside, and I found myself crying my eyes out in the dorm hallway while saying goodbye to my best friend at the college (this was what I’ve come to think of as Hysterical Sobbing Freak-Out #1). Our school librarian and my friend Carrie drove me to the airport, I said a snuffly goodbye to them, and promptly lost it again in the security line (Hysterical Sobbing Freak-Out #2). I cried all the way through security and was a wreck through the entire flight to Athens.

Now, in Athens, I had to collect and recheck my bags because I was switching airlines.

(Can you see where this is going? Towards that giant, soulless vacuum of travel nightmares? Oh yeah. It went there.)

My first bag was the third bag off the carousel. My second bag was the last, thirty minutes later.

I ran upstairs, dragging both 45-pound bags behind me. But by the time I got there, the USAir check-in counter was closed. It was about 11:00. The flight was scheduled to leave at 11:45. I turned around and ran to the USAir reticketing booth.

Standing there was another woman on my flight. When I explained my situation, I was told that our flight was “weight-restricted.”

(Giant soulless vacuum in 5… 4… 3…)

They had to call ahead and see what the weight restrictions were on the plane, and if they could take more passengers. We waited. Finally, the ticketing agent came back. With unmistakable dread, she announced that the flight could take only one more passenger. Since the other woman had been there first, she got to go.

Hysterical Sobbing Freak-Out #3 was upon us.

Over the next 45 minutes, I waited and desperately looked at options, crying off and on. Because the initial delay was the fault of Aegean Air, and not USAir, I would be liable for all fees.

Finally, it was clear that due to booked flights, changing fees and differences in fares, the cheapest and quickest option to get home would cost $900 and not put me home until July 2nd.

Hysterical Sobbing Freak-Out #4 was the mightiest thus far. It all seemed so unfair. None of this was my fault. I was already emotionally exhausted. As if leaving Greece wasn’t bad enough, I was now $900 poorer and looking at a night in Athens AND a night in Philly before finally getting home. I thanked the reticketing staff through my tears, though, because they made it as easy as possible in such an awful situation. While I was standing there, three or four other panicked passengers came running up, some of whom were less than courteous to say the least. Those poor people have a very difficult job.

There was no question of going into the Athens city center with all my luggage on the metro, so I booked a night in the cheapest hotel I could find in the area and dragged my two 45-pound bags all over the airport while doing so. The only option under 250 euros/night cost me 115 total with transfer to and from the airport. But, there was one silver lining to this pooptastic cloud–I got one last kalamari lunch, and a last Greek coffee and bougatsa breakfast the next morning!

Day Two

I was the first person in the check-in line the next morning (after dragging both 45-pound bags all the way back to the airport), and boarded my flight to Philadelphia with no problems (besides my first experience with reverse culture shock, detailed in my last post!). I climbed into a metal box with a bunch of other strangers, read my book for ten hours, and when I got out, I was in America.

Spending the night in Philadelphia, as dictated by my new itinerary, was a great way to freak myself out completely from a reverse culture shock perspective. Suddenly, everything was in English. I listened to two fellow passengers complain about mainland Greece (“The Peloponnese was okay, but the islands are just so much better…”) with disgust, but marveled at the remarkably refreshing diversity of the people around me. I watched fat children screaming back-talk at their parents, but chatted with a fellow Westerner about one of my favorite American authors while waiting in customs. Nothing had ever felt so bittersweet. After spending an hour dragging both 45-pound bags through customs, I emerged blinking back into my home country.

When I got to my hotel, the only food within walking distance was Denny’s. Perhaps I should have known that a Philadelphia Denny’s would be a bit much for my first few hours back in America. I enjoyed the heck out of my first pancakes in ten months, but the overly-friendly waitress, 4th of July decorations and absolutely astounding sheer size of everything (namely the portions and, I hate to say it, the people) made it feel like the freakin’ Twilight Zone in there. Of course, the jet lag wasn’t helping. When I finally stumbled back to my hotel, I felt like I was wandering through an alternate universe.

Day Three

I woke up at 3:50 Philadelphia time and headed to the airport for my 6 AM flight to Chicago. (As a side note, my hotel shuttle driver was so sweet and cheerful, but thought that they speak Latin in Greece, and asked me if the Colosseum was beautiful.)

I arrived back in the Philadelphia airport to find a sea of lines through which I had to drag both 45-pound bags again. There were at least 10 separate lines at the United check-in desks. And you know what? There were people standing there whose whole job was to make sure those lines functioned efficiently. Welcome to America!

When I had finally checked in and put my bags up on the scale, I heard with movie-like slow motion and imaginary dramatic sound effects that there was a problem with my tickets again.

You see, when USAir charged me $900 to change my ticket, they neglected to inform me that they were putting me on standby for my flight to Bozeman. Because of this, my bags could only be ticketed through to Chicago.

With frigid insensitivity, I was asked to wait in the “Additional Services” line. That oh-so-calm young man may as well have said, “Ma’am, see that giant, soulless vacuum over there behind the yellow line? We’re going to need you to just go ahead and step on inside, please.”

I dragged both 45-pound bags over to the GSV. By this point, it was 5:15, and my flight was sheduled for 6. A woman came over and asked if anyone was on the 6:00 to Chicago, and when I said yes, I was directed to yet a different line to which I had to drag my bags.

When I got to the front of that line, sorting out my baggage problem took forever. After fumbling with my luggage tags for no less than 20 minutes, the woman behind the counter kindly informed me that I had “to hustle,” because they weren’t going to hold the flight. A nice airline man named Elbert, who had watched me go through all those lines, wished me good luck. I ran up the escalator.

At the top of the steps was the longest security line I have ever seen.

Cue Hysterical Sobbing Freak-Out #5.

Sobbing openly, I made my way to the back of the line. As I stood there snuffling, a man came up and said, “Excuse me everyone, I’m on the 6:00 to Chicago. Does anyone mind if I cut ahead?” I ran up beside him and exclaimed that I too was on the same flight. Together, we asked everyone we passed, and they all were more than happy to let us ahead. There was a real spirit of camaraderie as they all exclaimed, “6:00?! You better hurry!” and “Please, go ahead, and good luck!”

I was just starting to bask in the rays of hope when the smackdown occurred.

Suddenly, right in my path, up stepped the closest human personification of a puffer fish I have ever seen. A burly African-American security guard, this woman may have been the Hulk. I’d believe it. She had a look on her face that almost gave me a stomachache as she stopped me dead (after letting the man I was with pass) and said, “Hell no, ma’am, you think you can just squeeze on by past all these people? I don’t think so. Are you a priority passenger? I don’t think so. Get back downstairs.” I protested in a halfhearted stammer (which may have been half in Greek–I think I accidentally said “parakalo” in my desperate stupor), but there was nothing doing.

Power-Tripping African-American Hulk Lady: 1.
Jet-lagged, Culture-Shocked, Sobbing Ginger: zip.

With Hysterical Sobbing Freak-Out #6 in full swing, I limply rode the escalator back down to the check-in counters. Elbert was still there. He took one look at my pathetic red, puffy eyes and running mascara and just said, “Oh, no, Ms. Peterson! What happened?” I explained (with a two-words-to-two-sob ratio) and he sighed. From the look on his face, I knew it was bad news. He said, “You know how sorry I am to have to tell you this, but… I have to ask you to go back to the ‘Additional Services’ line.”

Bawling, I thanked him and trudged back to the giant soulless vacuum. As I stood there crying, no one around me said a word. When I got to the counter, the United air agent was stiff as a Cretan rusk as she asked me questions. Everything on United from Philadelphia to Denver, Chicago, AND Salt Lake were all full for the rest of the day. She could put me on standby, but it would cost $75 (how do airline execs sleep at night?!). She finally told me that in this case, United agents are told to direct passengers back to USAir.

Unsurprisingly, the USAir people told me that they couldn’t do a thing, and it had to be United who changed my flights. This would have been a disaster if my Dad wasn’t as awesome as he is. Being a seasoned travel guru and fluent in airline speak, he found me a ticket home which will put me into the Bozeman airport at midnight tonight. (If the GSV doesn’t interfere again, that is.) The only ticket he could find was first class, but we jumped on it with his SkyMiles just to get me home.

And guess what that first class ticket gave me?

Priority status.

Heh heh heh.

As I came back up to Power-Tripping African-American Hulk Lady, waving my first-class ticket, she blinked in surprise and said, “Ma’am, I don’t think… Oh. Well. Right this way, ma’am.” It was beyond gratifying. 😀

And now… I wait for almost a whole day in the Philadelphia airport. But I don’t care! I started a book on the flight from Athens. Maybe I’ll finish it today. As long as I get home tonight, I don’t care how much time I have to spend in the airport today.

Wish me luck, παιδιά!!



About wrap me in phyllo dough

travel addict. greece-obsessed. grad student. bottomless pit.
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18 Responses to Power-Tripping TSA Hulk Lady vs. Jet-lagged Culture-Shocked Ginger, and Other Tales from my 50+ Hour Transit Nightmare Home from Greece

  1. You poor thing! The longest we’ve ever been in transit was around 26 or 27 hours and that got us to Australia. You’re just a walking zombie at that point. My wife was literally having to keep us both awake at LAX.

  2. AJ says:

    My worst travel nightmare (but not as bad as yours:)
    Scene: Flying from Spokane, WA to Cairns, Australia. One ticket from Spokane to LAX, a different ticket from LAX to AU. February after 9/11. Yeah, you can see where this is going already.
    I checked my tickets the evening before, and put everything into my carry on. I was pretty calm about the transfer because I had a 6 hour layover in LAX, so I was feeling comfortable about getting through the increased security. After I land in LAX and get to the international terminal, I commence digging through all of my luggage. After dismantling a good 75 pounds of luggage on the marble floor, with no tickets to be found, I call my dad on a pay phone since I didn’t have a cell phone. He informs me that the reason I can’t find my tickets is because they’re on the table… right where I left them. The tears start.
    I commence waiting in line at the ticket counter- it’s a typical line for LAX, with about a 30 minute wait time. After I explain my problem, the lady at the ticket counter looks up my tickets, and says I have to call the main office, and they will fax over a replacement authorization for electronic tickets, and I should be all set. I step out of line, and call the main office on a pay phone. They proceed to fax over the paperwork for my tickets. I wait in line again. The young man at the counter looks over the 4 sheets of paper, looks at me, frowns, and looks at the papers again. “I’m sorry. These aren’t our tickets, we can’t reissue them. You have to talk to STA to get new tickets.” The tears start again.
    I step up to the pay phones again. By this time, I’m running out of quarters and Kleenex. I call STA. Their nearest office is in Santa Monica, and they transfer me to that office. The guy on the phone seems very nice, and states that yes, they can reissue the tickets, but it will cost me an additional $200 dollars. And I have to present myself in person to the Santa Monica office. And they close in 25 minutes. But if I take this specific bus, and transfer to this line, and get off at this stop, I might just make it. No more tears at this point, partly because I have a plan, and some logistical puzzles to solve before I lose it.
    I think for approximately 47 seconds after attempting to find the bus pick up outside of the international terminal. There is NO way I’m going to risk the bus, with my two large suitcases and two carry-ons in tow. I flag a cab. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever taken a cab. And the cab driver doesn’t speak English, or Spanish, from what I can tell. I eventually just hand the driver the piece of paper I’ve written the address on, and start praying. However, it is 5:35pm in Los Angeles, complete with rush hour.
    According to the Google Maps I just looked at, the total distance I needed to travel was 12 miles. (I’m glad I didn’t have a map then- I would have been over confident about my abilities to get there in time. Instead, I just had a deep, sinking sensation in my soul, of being lost in this big damn city, at the mercy of a taxi driver who didn’t speak English, and the large machine known as “air travel.” Combine this with my fear of changing plans and being late, especially when added to the certainty that the PLANE WILL LEAVE WITHOUT YOU, and you can imagine the hot mess that I was.)
    I have now used up 3 hours of my 6 hour layover, and about 30 minutes of the 25 before they closed. The taxi driver pulled up to the curb, and gestures in the vague direction of the other side of the cross street and says (from what I can tell) “47 dollars. Not far. That way.” I unload my luggage, and try to arrange it so I can carry it all, and trudge/run up the street, computer bag and backpack bouncing, glaring at each storefront like the force of my gaze will turn it into the STA travel agency.
    An oasis appears (literally.) The front of the travel agency is the stereotypical sunny deserted beach, with an ocean of blue water disappearing over the horizon. And the lights are still on. The door is locked, but the wonderful agent opens the door from me. I’m pretty sure it was a smile of pity, not welcome, but I was going to take it anyway. It turns out that he was the one I’d spoken to, and he had waited for me. And he says that since I know where the tickets are, he’ll reprint them for $25 dollars, and I can have my parents send in the other tickets tomorrow. I’m pretty sure by that point I was crying (again) out of gratitude.
    I hailed the second cab of my life, with yet another man who didn’t speak English. However, LAX is a little easier to explain. But at this point, I’m yelling at him to hurry, since now I have to be checked in for my flight in less than 30 minutes. He takes my last $50 in cash, and drops me at the front of the LAX International Terminal.
    I join the line yet again. The agents check me through, but not before giving me a reminder that I was “cutting my check in a little close, and I’d better hurry if I wanted any chance at getting through security. Also, the airline wanted me to know that they couldn’t guarantee that my bags would be on the plane with me.”
    The TSA agents didn’t think much of me trying to rush through the line, either, and decided that while my nail clippers were ok to bring aboard, the nail file IN the clippers was not. So they bent the file until the metal broke and they could give me the clippers back. I think they just wanted to prove a 3 1/2 minute point.
    The rest of the trip overseas involved a middle seat with a man that thought the appropriate place for his elbow was my ribcage, while the man on the other side of me thought I was a pillow to be drooled upon, and the man behind me trying to convince his new found friend to join the Mile High Club. But, I was on that damn flight, and that, my friend, was all that mattered.

    • Boy, it seems like when something goes wrong while traveling, it always just snowballs into a total disaster somehow! Doesn’t it? When one thing goes wrong while traveling, it all just goes to hell, as if travel problems somehow bring all their friends along…

  3. Oh, no – you poor thing! I was hoping at the end of this entry that you are at least HOME. But no, this is STILL July 2. And while I have encountered all of the aforementioned nightmares, I have NOT experienced them on ONE single journey. Wishing you a safe return (w/o hassle and all bags accounted for…) to Bozeman and a few hours of blissful sleep! You’ll need some time (and comfort food) to digest this one!
    As we say in German: Wer eine Reise tut, der kann was erzählen! (She who travels has a story to tell!)

    • I’m finally home now!! Thank goodness! And I just had my first big American breakfast again, so comfort food has been achieved too. Ola kala! 🙂

      P.S. I love the German quotation! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Mark Rosenblum says:

    Kate, terrific blog. You are the greatest! Best, Mark

    • Thanks, Mark! I just got the cookbook Carrie sent me and I absolutely love it; it will be such fun to try cooking some recipes out of it. I hope you and the whole family are enjoying being at Sunapee! 🙂

  5. Pingback: Power-Tripping TSA Hulk Lady vs. Jet-lagged Culture-Shocked Ginger, and Other Tales from my 50+ Hour Transit Nightmare Home from Greece » Greece on WEB

  6. With total sympathy for your torture, I say HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Indeed, bad airline travel is a lack of logic on an epic scale. And I say that as one of several people I know who have worked in that insanity and agree wholeheartedly with you. The only people who can stand to work there for more than 6 months are the people with no capacity for logic at all; it should be part of the pre-employment screening process.

    • Yeah, at this point, even I have to admit it is pretty darn funny. And I can’t even imagine working at an airport! Geez, you must have had to deal with the works in both coworkers and clients. Any particularly cringe-worthy stories?

  7. Sugarenia says:

    Oh my gosh, Kate, that was the worst thing ever! If that ever happened to me I’d prolly just curl in a corner and cry till someone notices and .

    Good to hear you’re now home! Never forget that Greece is your σπίτι on the other side of the ocean though 🙂

  8. mjonath says:

    I think all I can say in response is…. glad you made it. Sorry it was such a nightmare. But it sure is one heck of a story.

    • I try to always remember that the worse an experience is, the better story it will make. I suppose we writers have it easy, in that our work gets easier the more ridiculously awful an experience is!

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