Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Travel Mishaps (page 1 of 3)

Hope for the best, plan for the worst

One of the most frustrating things about traveling is watching all your well-laid plans go completely out the window. Hours of planning and preparing, all for nothing. This is why you should actually *keep* preparing for reasonably foreseeable problems that may arise.

I am constantly reminded how unpredictable travel can be. My wife and I have had our share of incidents, from minor delays, to unpredictable driving conditions (read: landslides), to completely canceled flights. Two of the worst incidents include our recent detour around the 101 slide (SEE: So close, yet so far), and being completely hosed by United on our trip to Quebec (SEE: Our First United Horror Story).

Planning for FT4RL

When I booked my recent flight to Orlando for the Family Travel 4 Real Life conference (SEE: Invaluable Disney travel hacks and other things I learned at FT4RL), I was poignantly aware that I had chosen an itinerary with only a 35 minute connection in San Francisco. The ticket was the best I could find to fit my $500 budget with my Merrill Lynch points that only had one connection. It also had good departure and arrival times.

Normally, this would be everything I’d want in a flight. Except I understand all too well United’s track record flying between Arcata and San Francisco. That route may have the worst on time performance of any in the whole U.S. I’m serious. Delays are pretty much inevitable on the route.

My “worst case” plan

Because the late morning flight from Arcata has such an abysmal on time performance (it’s one of the lovely options in Google Flights that gets the “often delayed by 30+ minutes” designation), I made sure I researched some alternate flights. Rather than simply let an agent rebook me into whatever makes sense to them, I like to understand all my options. Being prepared in the event of a delay could save me substantial time and headache.

For example, I knew I would prefer flying part of the way on a connecting flight rather than take the next nonstop flight to Orlando. If I had missed the 12:55 p.m. departure out of SFO, I would have been stuck waiting until a 10:40 p.m. departure! This would be an awful red-eye,  arriving at a little after 7:00 a.m. eastern time. There is no way I wanted that flight, even if it is a nonstop.

Instead, I would prefer to fly to one of United’s hubs. I specifically identified Houston as the best one, mainly because hotels are cheap (in case United wouldn’t comp me), and because there are a LOT of flight options, both from SFO to IAH and from IAH to MCO. More options = less chance of significant delays.

Chicago was a secondary option to Houston. There are just as many flights to Orlando each day. But it would be a slightly longer trip. Either way, I’d given myself enough travel time that an overnight delay wouldn’t kill the trip.

I jotted down some preferred flight numbers for both options, in case I missed the flight to Orlando. I wanted to be able to feed the agent the exact flights on which I desired to be rebooked.

The final precaution

The last thing I ended up doing was changing my reservation in Orlando at the Country Inn & Suites. If I missed my flight and couldn’t make it, I would be out the points. Instead, I planned on either booking an IHG hotel on points at the last minute, or using cash if rates were decent. Orlando was actually one of the best options for earning at least a small number of bonus points from my Q2 IHG accelerate offer, so I opted for cash.

Ultimately, everything turned out fine. The flight out of Arcata left a mere 5 minutes late, which is unheard of. We landed a few minutes late at SFO, and I literally walked off one flight, down the terminal, and onto the other. It was the closest connection I’ve ever had that I’ve actually made.

In this case, planning for “the worst” wasn’t necessary. But I know that things won’t always go that smoothly!

So close, yet so far

Last week my wife and I were returning from a wonderful 5 night getaway in Banff and Calgary, Alberta. Banff National Park is spectacular, even in shoulder season when there is lingering snow and cool temperatures (SEE: Banff, Alberta in 14 photos).

Our travel plans home included a midday non-stop flight to SFO out of Calgary on United, and then a 5.5 hour drive home back up the coast.

Flying 1,000 miles? No problem

Our flight was uneventful, and we landed in San Francisco just in time to catch the rush hour traffic headed north.

After fighting our way through Santa Rosa, the road finally opened up. We started counting down the final 3 hours of our drive, anticipating being home in our lovely apartment around 10:00 p.m.

Driving 270 miles? A bit more difficult

We got as far as Leggett, only to be stopped by a “Road Closed” sign. A CalTrans worker soon informed us that a problematic hillside had decided to fall into the road again, and 101 was completely closed. The road had just opened from the previous slide the day before. Shoulda figured it would slip again. *Sigh.* Back to Willits we’ll go.

Willits, the closest town to where we got turned around, is only about 100 miles from where we live. Because the road was closed at the worst pinch point possible, there was no easy to way to just drive around.

Many of you who are locals understand the major issues we’ve had this winter, as 101 has seen multiple closures. When 101 is closed at Leggett, you only have 2 options:

  1. Take a local dirt and gravel road that is not intended for a large amount of traffic (and by all accounts has been brutalized this winter)
  2. Drive 7 hours around, which is over 3 times what the drive *should* take!

Because we drive a minivan and not a 4×4 pickup, the only reasonable option was the latter.

The long way home

We spent the night at the Super Duper Pooper 8 in Willits, basically just sleeping and showering.  The next morning we hit the road at 7:00, headed south to take Highway 20 over to I5. By a little after 9:00 we had reached the valley. An hour later we made a pit stop in Red Bluff before heading back over the mountains.

The last few hours were the worst, as we drove winding highway 36. The road has taken a beating this year, as so many people have had to drive around the closures on highway 101.

Finally, we arrived home a little after 1:00. I literally headed straight to the office and into a meeting, arriving at 1:30 on the dot.

Will this ever get better?

Honestly, this sort of thing has become par for the course when we travel. Some situation *always* seems to present itself that we have to work around.

I just have to resign myself to the fact that getting in and out of Humboldt will never be an easy proposition. Yet I still seem to convince myself that one of these times things will be different.

Header image courtesy of CalTrans. 

Leveraging the Flexibility of Hotel Award Bookings

Travel plans can be fickle things. Sometimes you can have a plan in place for weeks, or even months, and have it go sideways on the last day. And it makes me grateful hotel award bookings are nearly always flexible.

My wife and I have had our share of crazy travel incidents. We actually joke that we can’t go on a trip without *something* happening that throws a wrench in our plans. Our winter trip to Canada in early 2016 was botched by a canceled United flight, and our summer trip to Europe was almost completely ruined by the fact I needed a new passport!

We can’t seem to catch a break

This trip really wasn’t much different. Maybe just a couple notches lower.

A couple days before we were to head to the Bay to fly out to Alberta, there was a major slide on Highway 101. As is typical, it was at the choke point near Leggett, California where there is literally no easy detour.

So, my wife and I decided to bite the bullet and drive narrow, winding Highway 36 over to Interstate 5 and then down to the Bay. It would add at least 2 hours to our trip.

Since I was trying hard to balance work, vacation, and PTO usage, I decided to change our Bay Area plans (yet again). I had already changed them once when I realized I was beginning to hoard my points.

Instead of arriving late in the evening the night before our flight, I decided we would head down a day earlier than planned. This meant we would spend 2 nights in the Bay. I would work an uber long day out of our San Francisco office, and we would fly out early to Calgary on Thursday.

Doing the award travel shuffle

This trip was another case study on why I am glad hotel award bookings are so flexible. Unlike airline award bookings (Southwest being an exception), hotel award bookings aren’t locked in until usually 24 hours before check-in. I was able to leverage this fact to rebook our hotel plans at less than 48 hours from our check-in time.

Our initial reservation was at the Hampton Inn SFO on Hilton points. I also had booked parking at the same hotel. I cancelled all this (glad I paid the $2.99 trip protection fee for the parking), and booked the Staybridge Suites with our 2 free IHG night certificates that had just posted.

While not the best use of the certificates you could dream up, it would put us in a comfortable suite with a full kitchen for my wife. Well worth it, in my opinion. Dan Miller, who runs Points with a Crew, “wasted” his for a similar hotel in London a couple years ago.

The new parking plan was at the BART station in San Bruno. It turned out to be $25 cheaper than the other off-airport parking (before the cost of any BART tickets). If you’ve never used BART, check out why it is a great option in the Bay Area.

Conclusion

All in all everything worked out just fine. We didn’t lose any money on any pre-paid bookings. I do book pre-paid now and then (such as our upcoming night at the Aloft Calgary), but I don’t recommend doing this in general. It can make sense if you are getting a great rate, but sometimes you don’t know what will come up and it is better to have the flexibility. And award bookings give you flexibility.

The actual travel turned out to be better than I hoped as well. Yeah, it was a 7-hour trek, but we made it. My wife had an easygoing day in San Bruno while I worked my tail off in downtown SF. Now we are signing off for the weekend to enjoy all that beautiful Banff has to offer.

 

Steven Curtis Chapman sings the “Flight Delay Blues” on a recent trip

Well known Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman sang an impromptu song on Facebook Live on Thursday when his travel plans went awry. He was headed home to Nashville from Oklahoma City with a connection in Dallas, but the trip didn’t go as planned.

The plane he was on required maintenance. After a delay of an hour, everyone ended up having to deplane. Chapman then composed and sang the “flight delay blues” on the spot. You can watch him here.

It’s a good thing he didn’t check his guitar!

I’m wondering if he quickly came up with the lyrics and scratched them down, or if the song was completely off the cuff. If it was the latter, I’m quite impressed!

Getting the full pat down from the TSA at Arcata Airport

Thus far in my flying career, I’ve had very few notable incidents with the TSA. Sometimes the giant millimeter wave machine will erroneously say I have something in my back pocket or on my chest, and the Mr. TSA man will have to make sure I’m not carrying a hidden box cutter. Lately, security has actually been fairly painless when I’ve traveled.

But that all changed yesterday morning. I started things off with a full pat down from the TSA.

Of course my bag appears suspicious

I was headed off for a 5-night stint in Australia, eager to experience my first flights in a true international premium cabin. I had even managed to book seat 1A in the nose of a Boeing 747-400 (so geeky, I know). I was flying SFO to Seoul Incheon (ICN), and then ICN to Sydney, Australia (SYD). To start it all off, though, I had to make a quick connecting hop from our local Arcata-Eureka airport.

I arrived at Arcata-Eureka airport with about 50 minutes until our scheduled departure, and about 20 minutes until boarding. Security at the airport is a single line for the single departure gate, and is usually very quick and easy.

But not yesterday. I put all my stuff in the bins as usual, careful to leave my laptop in a bin by itself. The first TSA agent asked if I had any liquids, and I said yes, and that they were really tiny. She said that was fine and ushered me through.

I had no problems passing through the metal detector, but I knew something was up with my bag. The lady manning the x-ray machine stared at it for a long time. When it did come out, another agent promptly took it aside. Not good.

No, I don’t have explosives in my bag

After identifying it as mine, the TSA lady opened up my bag. My wife had packed me a substantial amount of homemade snack food, and she asked what a few items were. It was understandable, considering the homemade fruit roll ups do look a little suspicious.

She did an explosives swab of one of the bags, and I could tell it came back negative by the sound the machine made. After pulling out a second paper, she did a swab of the interior perimeter of the bag and inserted it into the machine.

Which set off a series of beeps a few seconds later that I had never heard before. Great. That can’t be good.

Another TSA agent came by, explains that my bag had tested positive for explosive residue, and informed me that he had to give me a pat down and that my entire bag would have to be searched.

At this point I was screaming inside my head, “Really, people?!?! This is the tiny Arcata Airport! Do I honestly look that suspicious to you?”

But instead I just said, “OK,” keeping my explosive reaction to myself. I wanted to say, “OK, whatever, this is why I can’t stand you guys,” but I kept my feelings to myself.

So I just stood there, holding my arms straight out to each side while TSA man gave me a full pat down while TSA lady searched my entire bag for the explosives that I supposedly had stashed in their somewhere. If there were any, I wasn’t aware of them. Maybe my wife makes explosives in her spare time and somehow forgot to inform me of her strange hobby.

The entire ordeal lasted about 12-15 minutes. A few people were staring at me, but by the time my full pat pat down from the TSA man was over, I didn’t care. I just wanted my bag back with enough time to pack it neatly before having to run onto the plane. It was almost boarding time. I hadn’t expected to burn this much time or have this much difficulty getting through security.

Fortunately, we were soon airborne, leaving my TSA troubles far behind.

Ok, I guess I should be thankful for the TSA

I do understand the need for airport and aircraft security. I really do. But the methods of the TSA often boggle my mind. And their statistics on what gets through them are less than stellar. Undoubtedly, they were just following protocol, but I didn’t have to like it. This is the first time I had ever set off the explosives scanner, and I hope I never do it again.

I have heard so many stories of people’s hands causing false positives for the explosives screening, especially if they have been on or near a farm. The whole thing is really a farce, anyway, since the TSA doesn’t even check everyone’s hands, just a random sample.

What about you? Do you have any crazy TSA stories?

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