Monday, January 12, 2009

Lessons from spending 16 hours at the airport

Photo Courtsey: Creative Commons

This happened to us on our way back from Schiphol, Amsterdam to San Francisco. We had to take a connecting flight from Dulles, Washington to San Francisco and due to long immigration check and security check lines we missed our connecting flight. This was at 4:00 pm . Airline offered to put us on stand-by for the next flight, but after making us wait for two hours told us that they had no seat for us and we were put on stand-by for the next flight four hours later. Four hours later we were told that this flight was full as well, after speaking with customer service we found out that we couldn't get a seat until now because of our low priority status. She bumped up our priority status, but since the next flight was at 7:00 am, we had to spend the night at the airport. Due to the early flight, it didn't make sense for us to go to a hotel so we had to stay at the airport. It was a long night, but here're some of the lessons we learned:

Before your journey

  • If your port of entry is not your destination, keep substantial difference between your connecting flights. At least 2 hours, more if you're not a US citizen.

  • A blanket of your own in the carry on is a big blessing.

  • Charge, charge, charge - laptop, cellphone, shaver, ipod. Whatever is good enough to carry in your carry-on is definitely good enough to be carried fully charged. Especially cellphones - they're lifesavers in many situations, having it die on you while you're stuck could be a double whammy - and the worst part - you won't even have a security line to blame it on.

  • Cash is king - Have some change, and some high value bills in your pocket of whatever currency is used at the airports you will be traveling through. Not all countries honour credit cards - even at the airport.

  • Never ever make the mistake of flying without toiletries in your carry-on. The hassle of putting them in a ziploc and getting them checked separately during security is well worth it. Ladies, some basic make-up is good too. I'm not asking you to carry on a 2 sqft vanity case. But having a lipstick, eye-liner, foundation won't hurt.

  • If you have the space, pack some dry snacks that you're comfortable eating. It is not really essential because most of the airports have eating options. But the options available may not always match your tatse or preferences and moreover, it will be expensive. It will be good to have your food with you. However, that may not always be possible depending on what else you're carrying/where you're flying from.

  • A change of cloth is also a good thing to have. The comfortable, the better.

  • You probably know this but its worth repeating - put some unique, robust and easily identifiable tags on your luggage. Ours are fluroscent orange cloth ribbons with mine and husband's name embroidered on them and they are actually sewn through the luggage handle. When we went to claim our luggage at the destination, I was missing one piece. I just said out aloud - "My suitcase had this similar orange tag with my name" one of the airline agents remembered stowing the suitcase with that tag in the backroom and immediately brought it to us.

You have missed your connecting flight, now what

  • If you miss your connecting flight, don't just take the default stand-by status for the next flight. Asked to get confirmed, failing that, asked to be promoted to a higher priority. Negotiate, plead, tell them over and over again that you are a passenger from an international flight (If you are). Nowadays there are so many categories of special passengers that if you're on an ordinary passenger status, chances of your getting a seat are next to null, specially in a high season. Moreover, airlines do give special consideration to international pasengers who missed their connecting flights due to immigration checks and/or long security check lines, so a little pleading will go a long way. Try to remain polite though.

  • Take advantage of what your airline has to offer. If you want to go to a hotel for the night, ask if they have any discount coupons. Our airline offered us 50% discount for the hotel. I think others may do the same too.

  • Make sure that your luggage boards the plane with you. Although it is airlines' policy to not load the luggage until the passenger boards the plane - you can never be sure amid all the chaos that ensues with all that holiday rush. In fact, our luggage arrived the destination before us. So check and double check the whereabouts of your luggage. The next worst thing to spending night at airport is to arrive at the destination and not find your luggage.

  • Hang on to your luggage tags that airline issued after they checked in your baggage. They are the only proof you have that you had some luggage with you, and it is with the airline now.

So you're in for a night at the airport

  • Inform your relatives/friends about the situation you're in. If you've made any arrangements to get picked up at your destination airport those need to be changed as well.

  • If you have to spend the night on the airport, try to get comfortable. Find yourself a lounge thats dimly lit, a relatively quiet corner, a set of chairs on which you can lie down instead of sitting. Getting a little sleep would help you kill the time, as well as make you feel somewhat refreshed for the day ahead.

  • Depending on the availability of resources, try to do things as you would do routinely at your destination/home. Brush, Shave, have your breakfast, read a newspaper. Key here is not to focus too much on the lack of things/comforts you don't have but to be as ready as possible for the day with what you do have. If you have your razor and cream, shave and feel good about it, if not, see if you have a fresh pair of clothes and can change. While dwelling on the lack of this/that will frustrate you, using what you have will make you feel glad that you packed it, keep you occupied and let you be more prepared for your destination, when you do get there.

  • The restrooms are cleanest between 4:00 am - 5:00 am. Take advantage ;-)

  • If your phone is working - make all the calls that you'd wanted to make but never had time. Call those long-lost friends, or touch base with your clients. Now is a good time to address that pesky issue, for which you needed to call the customer service of some provider(only if you have all the details). Just be aware of the time-zone that callee would be in. You don't want your friend in Los Angeles ( whom you're calling after an year) to wake up at 3:00 am, just because you wanted to say hello while you're stuck at JFK, New York.

  • If you have a laptop - Now is a good time to compose all those emails that you never seem to get a chance to write. Some articles for your blog, goals are all good. You can even chalk out your budget if its something you'd always wanted to do.

  • If you only have your mind - Now is a good time to brainstorm on some puzzling issues. Since you're somewhat removed from your day to day life, you can think fairly objectively and may have your 'Eureka' moment. One word of caution though - try hard to steer clear of any negative thoughts, you're probably tired and likely frustrated with your airline, security process etc. If you start feeling like banging the help desk or throwing your backpack at the security agent, get up, take a walk, use restroom, haggle with shop associate over the price of candy. You don't really need more trouble than you're already in. Jokes apart, I really feel that although there are people who can use such times for creative thinking, for most of us mortals, it is not easy to put aside all the discomfort and frustration and get into a zen state. If you can, think about the good things in your life. If you still feel like negativity building up in your mind and find your self feeling bitter about something or the other, tell yourself that this is not a good time to think about this issue. A better idea would be to chat with fellow passengers, reading a magazine, doing something to keep your mind occupied.

This is based on our experience as a couple traveling back to US. I can't imagine the plight of passengers with young kids and travelers to other countries who find themselves in similar/more difficult situations. Do share your experiences/tips in comments. Enjoy your jouney.

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