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!
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!
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.
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?
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!!