It seems a bit disingenuous to write about the joys of
travel during the current coronavirus scare, when people are afraid to pass
through airports or be entombed in airplanes with hundreds of unknown people
from all around the world. Even those who would dare those risks are
reconsidering travel plans when the very real possibility of quarantine looms
large. No one wants to spend weeks in a windowless cruise ship cabin.
(Shudder.) My own friends and family are canceling or postponing trips for
Perhaps the airlines are starting to feel the pinch, as a note just popped up to say that Air Canada and WestJet will waive fees to change flights if you go ahead and book flights now (between March 4 and March 31 for AC and between March 3 and March 17 for WestJet). I’m guessing new bookings have plummeted to zero and they are desperate to get some cash flowing in. I suggest that ALL airlines and ALL hotels/accommodations follow suit or they will be completely shut down for the next few weeks, until the health situation stabilizes. No one is going to be crazy enough to book travel as long as there’s a good chance they will lose their money if they have to cancel.
Meantime, what I want to know is how will the airlines and hotels accommodate people who booked months ago and are scheduled to travel soon? Has anyone heard anything from them beyond “Tough luck”? I even wonder if travel insurance companies are going to cover any of this. (Doubtful.)
Fares on ultra-low-cost airlines can be mighty tempting. I spotted return flights from Abbotsford to Las Vegas for C$150, taxes included. Wow! But having watched the classic video “Cheap Flights” numerous times on Youtube, I was cautious. Was this deal actually bookable? Would extra charges suddenly pop up? What would Swoop be like? Would we have to pedal to keep the plane airborne? Would they tie the doors closed with twine? (I witnessed this on Yemen Airlines back in the ‘70s.) Would there be bathrooms on board? Seatbelts???
I’m happy to report that overall, Swoop—Westjet’s ultra-low-cost line—was perfectly fine. No, you don’t get free beverages or food aboard. Yes, you pay for every piece of luggage, including carry-on. You are allowed one “personal item” about the size of a laptop bag and that’s it. We opted to pay for one large checked bag and stuffed everything else into our “personal items” to avoid paying for carry-on.
There were friendly cabin personnel, there were seatbelts, there were even bathrooms. There was no entertainment system unless you paid, but that didn’t bother us, as the flight was short anyway. Booking the flights was easy and prices were as advertised, other than the charge for baggage, which I expected, and the usual urging to pay extra in order to get two seats together. I ignored that.
Some of the issues I did run into during online check-in:
1/ When I tried to check in using Internet Explorer, the first question was “which airport?” No options were given and clicking produced nothing. You couldn’t write in the box or choose an option. Total fail.
I tried again on Chrome and—wow—amazing! Now it works.
Okay, I’ve been warned and threatened online many times that my Internet Explorer is “no longer supported” and will soon be completely defunct. Bleah. But I strongly suspect that I’m being “encouraged” to switch to Chrome by The Powers That Be through them deliberately undermining IE. I don’t like it, so I’m docking Swoop marks for having a site that doesn’t work in IE. So there.
2/ Filled in all the tedious info over several pages and finally got to the end. It asks do you want to download, email, or print your boarding passes? I choose email. It gives me a message that says to ask a Swoop agent at the airport for my boarding pass. I try choosing “download” instead. Gives me the same message. So obviously, YOU CAN’T GET YOUR BOARDING PASS ONLINE. Why don’t they just tell you that? Or better yet, forget about forcing us to check in online, since you can’t get your boarding pass anyway?
On the up side, after I ignored yet more encouragement to pay extra for seat selection, I did get assigned two seats together, despite refusing to pay for the privilege. I have heard that some airlines will deliberately separate travellers to punish them for not choosing paid seat selection, so Swoop earns a thumbs up by not doing that—at least in our case.
Processing at the airport was par for the course. Once we settled in to wait, however, we glanced at the Departures board only to be plunged into the traveller’s nightmare: Flight delayed. The first few flakes of snow began to drift down. This did not look good. Apparently, although our plane was sitting by the terminal, our flight was delayed because other flights coming in were late due to bad weather elsewhere. One of those mysteries of airline travel.
We sat in the terminal for about an extra hour, watching the snow get thicker and thicker. At last, we were permitted to board. Remember those quaint old days of flying when you had to walk across the tarmac and then clamber up a rickety mobile staircase to the plane? Well, folks, you can live those days again at Abbotsford Airport. Slithering along on the slushy ground while a howling wind hurls snowflakes the size of toy poodles at your face will give you a whole new appreciation of why they invented the skybridges that, in the twenty-first century, usually allow you to stroll in climate-controlled oblivion from lounge to plane.
But I digress. Neither the weather nor the boarding setup can be held against Swoop.
So we wedge ourselves in our seats. And wait some more. About two hours we sat on the ground. With my window seat, I had a lovely view of the white stuff accumulating on the runway. At least the pilot came on the intercom periodically, letting us know what was happening and expressing his own frustration at the situation. I’m not sure there was anything else the crew or airline could have done, so I’m not blaming them. The story was that there is only ONE de-icing crew at Abbotsford, and all those other flights that were late needed to be de-iced and sent on their way before we could go. Of course.
Long story short, we did eventually arrive in Vegas, three hours late.
In contrast, our return was almost a breeze. Flight boarded on time, departed on time, and arrived on time. Just as we came in for our final approach to the runway, some heavy winds hit us and the plane was thrown around in a manner that made me flash through my Ready to Die list: Will prepared and filed somewhere safe. Check. Executors know where to find it. Check. Power of Attorney created. Check. Clean underwear. Check. Bed made. Dammit.
Fortunately, the Swoop pilot brought us in safely, we “deplaned” (what an annoying idiom that is!), zipped through a shortish customs line, and were in a taxi on our way home in less than an hour.
For $150 return, I figured I did okay. I had low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. I’ve paid high prices on regular airlines and had worse service. The truth is that flying today on most airlines is such a frustrating, uncomfortable endurance test that it’s hard to see what distinguishes an ultra-low-cost airline from the others.
In the song “Cheap Flights,” the hapless passenger attempting to leave the plane discovers “If you haven’t paid to use the stairs, you’ll have to fecking jump.” We were relieved that this was not the case on Swoop. Not yet.
About a year ago, I started coming across a lot of hype for something called “packing cubes” (PCs). There were blogs touting them and bins of them showing up for sale in various outlets where I shopped. Videos peppered the Internet, calling PCs “revolutionary” and assuring viewers that the gadgets are a “must-have.”
I took a look and couldn’t quite figure out what all the excitement was about.
PCs are basically zippered, box-shaped stash-alls made of nylon, Cordura, mesh, or other strong fabrics. They come in various sizes (often sold in sets of two or three different sizes) none of which weigh very much.
So what’s the point?
PCs are designed for two purposes:
1. They help you stay organized on the road.
2. They help you compress your clothes so you can get more into your suitcase or bag.
When I bought my two sample PCs (two different sizes) at an outdoors store, I asked the cashier what she thought about them. She was vehement in her praise and talked about how using them made it so much easier to find things in her backpack.
Okay, I can see that. If you have your entire wardrobe plus assorted other necessaries (book, flashlight, towel, etc.) all jammed into what is, in essence, a big vertical tube, accessible only through little trapdoors, I’m sure it’s a challenge putting your hands on any specific item, like, for example, a pair of underwear.
But what about in a suitcase? When I open my case, I can see a large cross-section of my stuff laid out before me. It’s not quite like rooting around in a backpack. So do PCs earn their keep in the more genteel context of the suitcased traveller? This was the challenge.
In the past, I had put things into my suitcase higgledy-piggledy. I rolled things and stuffed them in wherever I found room. This meant that I’d often be hunting through the entire contents to find a clean pair of socks. Moreover, as my trip progressed, I would be wondering from day to day how much unused clothing I had left. Unless I pulled everything out and sorted it, I had no way of knowing. This could lead to being caught short, as when I discovered that last clean underwear I was positive I had packed somewhere in my bag was actually just a figment of my wishful imagination. Oops. I guess the Acropolis will have to wait—laundry day today!
With my clothes sorted into PCs, I can locate items quickly and tell instantly how many clean ones I still have and, hence, how soon the laundry emergency bell will ring. Of course, this means that I have to roll, sort, and PC my laundry after the washing is done or the system breaks down, but I don’t find that too onerous.
The second benefit—compression—is a double-edged sword. Yes, you can stuff more into your bag, no question. But compressing your clothes too much can make them unattractively wrinkled. Of course, you could choose to travel with no-iron synthetics. Eeeeeewwww. No, I’ll stick with my comfy cottons and live with the crinkles, but I don’t need to make it worse by putting enough pressure on my t-shirts to turn them into diamonds.
And don’t forget about weight. There’s no point in filling your suitcase so efficiently that it goes over the allowed weight. Clothes are heavy and a case that’s really stuffed tight could easily be too heavy. You don’t want to be that person who ends up beside the bag-check line frantically redistributing contents between suitcases because one is overweight. Or worse, you smugly brought only a carry-on bag, but the check-in attendant tells you it’s over the limit. Now what? You might have little choice but to pay those steep oversize/overweight baggage fees. If you’re really going to try to pack the maximum, you’d better invest in a little scale to check the weight before you head off to the airport.
What’s the verdict? Are PCs worth the bother?
Well, I’m using them every time I travel now, so I must find them useful. Mine are sturdy, easy to locate in my suitcase, and keep some of my gear organized. That’s worth something to me. On the other hand, I haven’t raced out to buy more. Two seems to be enough. So I’d say they’re sort of a travel geek’s toy, for people who travel a lot and seek maximum convenience. Optional for more casual vacationers.
On our travel nightmare journey from Vancouver to Cancun, our United Airlines flight departure from YVR was delayed by two hours due to wildfire smoke at our stopover, San Francisco.
Let me make it clear, I don’t fault UA for this. The smoke was “an act of God.” The issue is, how did UA handle this emergency?
We made up about an hour en route, but still arrived an hour late at SFO. The flight crew assured us that all flights in/out of SFO were being delayed, so we might still make our connecting UA flight to Cancun. We were told to “check the flights board” to see if our flight had gone, and if it had, we should then talk to a customer service rep.
Of course, our flight had indeed departed (without the 13 of us who were all delayed from that one flight. Hmmm…13…I wonder?) so we went in search of a customer service rep. We found two United Airlines “service” desks, both unstaffed, and tried two UA “service” phones, both dead lines.
We finally approached a UA employee at one of the gate check-ins, who told us where to find an open service booth.
Question 1: Since our connecting flight had long since departed, why wasn’t that info passed to the flight crew to pass to us on the plane so we wouldn’t waste time trying to find our flight on the board? I have seen similar situations where a flight delay caused a number of passengers to miss a connecting flight, and the airline sent a rep to meet the plane, collect the affected passengers and escort them to wherever they needed to go next to resolve their flight issue. Why didn’t UA do that?
Question 2: Since dozens of UA flights were being delayed that evening and thousands of passengers rerouted, why wasn’t every service desk and every service phone in operation?
We finally locate the one open service booth and, naturally, there’s a long line-up, so we settle down to wait. 30 minutes later, we finally get to the head of the line. The harried UA rep asks “Are there only two of you?” We nod. He sends us to another booth down the terminal, where we wait again.
Question 3: Why didn’t the first service booth just have a sign or a rep stationed at the line to direct people immediately to the other booth, so we wouldn’t waste 30 minutes waiting in that line?
At the second booth, we are told that we have been rebooked via Houston on a flight that is boarding NOW. Really? We’re already rebooked, but you couldn’t have told us that back on the plane, an hour ago?
“Run!” says the rep helpfully.
Indeed, as we arrive at the gate, boarding is in its final stages. The surly rep at this gate snaps that the flight is full and we won’t get on. So why did the last rep send us here?
Two minutes later, she recants and we have boarding passes. Hooray! But when we find our seats (in separate rows), it is clear that both our seats were likely originally left empty because they are located next to Really Big People, who are not thrilled to discover that two last-minute passengers are about to take away their extra space.
As I wedge myself apologetically in the center seat of the very last row (read: no seat recline), the man on my other side smiles…and coughs. And coughs. And coughs.
Which leads to the topic of a future blog…”Mexican Health Care for Tourists.”
Is helping someone else with their carry-on showing common courtesy or merely enabling people who feel entitled?
A travel Facebook group I follow recently showed a post from a woman who said that if you can’t lift your own carry-on bag into the overhead bin on the airplane, you have no business bringing it on and you should check it. I’ve never seen such a flurry of vehement comments; dozens upon dozens within a couple of hours. Obviously something that a lot of people feel strongly about.
It wasn’t just the original rant that was interesting, but the associated tangents that popped up.
One person wrote that if you can’t lift your own bag, you should check it, and if you can’t afford to check it, you shouldn’t be traveling. That’s pretty harsh.
Then there was the woman who vented about people who use the space above her seat for their bag. How dare they? She stated smugly that if she finds the compartment above her seat full, and discovers that the bags don’t belong to people in that row, she will remove the bags to make room for her own.
Many years ago, I read an informative and amusing book titled something like Guerilla Flying. The first and crucial point that the book made was this: Your interests and those of the airlines are fundamentally at odds. You want to travel economically and comfortably. They want to make money, which means cramming as many bodies as they are allowed into the smallest space possible. In addition, they basically don’t care about your comfort; they know you often have no choice in whether or not to fly their airline, which is why they can get away with outrageous behaviour like physically assaulting customers while forcing them off the plane to accommodate “bumping” due to overbooking.
The issue of luggage is a case in point. In the good old days, checked bags were free. People were sensible and put heavy items in their checked bags. They put valuables and things they needed for their flight in their carry-on.
Then airlines began charging large fees for checked bags. Now people had strong motivation to try and “get by” with just carry-on. They began stuffing everything into their little bag. They began trying to sneak over-size and over-weight bags through as carry-on. The more carry-on there is, the more passengers must “compete” for bin space. I have been on more than one flight where I was one of the last passengers to board and, as a result, the bins were full. That was annoying and inconvenient to me, but I accepted it without complaint. When it comes to space on a plane, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and I had come out unlucky on those occasions.
If I had been the woman I mentioned earlier, I would have hauled someone else’s case out of the bin over my seat. But what would then prevent that person (or someone else) from hauling my bag out? There’s no law that says the bin above your seat belongs to you. Sure, it’s nice when you can have your bag near you, but if not, you take what you can get.
What I find ironic is how often these days the flight attendants end up begging for volunteers who will give up their carry-on and allow it to be loaded below. I can’t help but reflect that if the airlines didn’t charge for checked bags, more people would check their bags in the first place, and there wouldn’t be as much carry-on, avoiding the whole problem. Duh.
As for the issue of people not being able to lift their own bags, I’ve never seen anyone blatantly abusing the good will of others by demanding that they assist. Although I’m a woman neither particularly strong nor tall, I am still taller, stronger, and abler than some people. If I see someone struggling with their bag, I try to help. And I have been, on occasion, the beneficiary of similar assistance. I think it’s common courtesy, like holding the door for someone who is carrying packages. I have never seen anyone thus aided who did not show genuine gratitude.
One surprising thing that I picked up from the Facebook posting was that flight attendants are not supposed to help passengers lift their bags into the overhead bins. I had no idea—I always assumed this was part of their job. But apparently, it’s a worksafe issue. I’d be curious to know whether this is true, and if so, is it true across all airlines?
Do you have a pet peeve about carry-on? Are you a “try-to-get-by-with-only-carry-on” person or do you check a bag and take minimal baggage into the cabin? Let me know in a comment.
In the category of What Will They Think of Next, how about carry-on luggage that carries you? When I spotted the ad for this, I thought it was a joke. But no, there’s a real website touting what appears to be a real product, complete with endorsements from cool, hip-looking folks who, in the slick promo photos, are doing their best to ignore the fact that no matter how cool and hip they are, they look completely silly sitting on a little suitcase.
In the online manual under Key Safety Points, I see this caution: “Do not modify the Modobag.” But how long before speed freaks and the compulsively competitive begin tweaking the factory model so they can reach the security line-up asap? On the page titled Riding Etiquette, there’s this: “When riding with other Modobag riders…do not ride side-by-side.” Yeah, right. How are owners going to test the mettle of their dragsters if they don’t race side by side? One can just imagine the rush-hour traffic jams and inevitable collisions. Soon, these will come equipped with airbags and, more importantly, horns.
On past long-haul flights, I’ve often sat slumped forward with my head propped on my hands, elbows on the fold-down tray, desperate to sleep, but unable to relax. Sure, you can recline your seat back to a greater or lesser extent, but even when fully reclined, I find that my head lolls forward as I doze, preventing any real sleep. Those horseshoe-shaped neck pillows don’t really help. What I really needed, as I contemplated blearily over many dopey hours doing the tray-table thing, was a pillow shaped exactly to fit the cramped space between body and next-row seatback. It had to fully support my head in a forward position and, of course, it would have to be deflatable in order to fit in my carry-on bag.
Reasoning that I surely could not be the only person with this idea, I checked out a number of travel pillow styles online before choosing two to try.
The SkyRest is basically an inflatable quasi-cube (approx. 14″ x12″ x11″) with one slanted side where you rest your head. You place the pillow on the tray-table or on your lap, whichever height works better. There’s an attached pocket on the outside where you can slip in your hands, but that didn’t feel comfortable to me, so I let my hands/arms dangle or put them on top. The pillow has a large, easy-to-open inflation/deflation valve.
Unfortunately, I just couldn’t find a position that worked with this pillow. I tried various levels of inflation and several positions, but none allowed me to relax enough to sleep. Either I was suffocating with my nose and mouth pressed into the pillow or my neck was twisted to one side. Perhaps if you normally sleep on your stomach, you might have a way to get comfy on this pillow. It folds up to about 12.5″ x 9″ x 2”.
My second option is a bizarre device that looks like a cross between a World War I gas mask and the head of an arthropod. Imagine you have an air mat about 24” wide x 22” high, inflated to 2” thick. You roll that mat into a hollow cylinder. Prop that on end upon the tray-table and stick your face in the hollow. You will look like your face is being eaten by an alien. Never mind; your head is comfortably resting. However, it’s a bit stuffy and claustrophobic in there, so let’s cut a hole to the outside world to let in air. For good measure, we’ll cut two more openings so you can put your hands inside to anchor this structure. You now have the general idea behind the Little Cloud Nine.
This pillow comes in two sizes depending on your height. I am 5’6” and I bought the smaller size, which suited me. You can also adjust the height by inflating it more or less firmly. The two small valves work fine for inflation, but releasing them for deflation is tricky and a bit fiddly even once you get the right idea. Be sure to practice a few times at home or you may wind up wrestling the fully inflated contraption off the plane because you can’t open the valves.
I liked this gadget, odd as it may look. I was able to sleep for several hours, which is better than nothing on a trans-Pacific flight. Of course, once I raised my head, I realized I had unsightly dents and furrows imprinted on my face, but I have long ago said farewell to vanity, so I didn’t mind (much). Deflated, the Little Cloud Nine folds to about 13″ x 6.5″ x 1”; not tiny, but doable.
If you buy either one of these pillows, remember to inflate and deflate it several times before you travel to make it easier to do on the plane. Also, leave it in a space with good air circulation for as long as possible after you open the packaging so it can off-gas the heavy plastic odor. Finally, do not fully inflate any inflatable toys(!!) on a plane until you’re at cruising altitude, or your air buddy may explode from the change in cabin pressure.
Aside from not being able to sleep, another factor contributing to the discomfort of long flights is that there are limited positions you can manage within the confines of your allotted space. Any device that permits some further variation on possible contortions is worth trying out. I picked up the BlueCosto Portable Footrest online for about US$18. This is a simple item with a long strap that goes over your tray table. From this, a kind of foot hammock is suspended. Once it is adjusted to whatever height you prefer, you slip your feet in and enjoy. After several hours in the air, it is a relief to elevate your feet by even a few inches (which is about all you have room for under the seat in front). You can rest one foot or both, or use the footrest as a swing to work your leg muscles a bit, good practice for avoiding blood clots. The footrest is made of durable fabric and folds up into its own (flimsy) 10″ x 7″ x 1” pouch.
For the minimal cost and the space it takes up, I would recommend this gadget for long-distance air travel.
All three gadgets are available on Amazon. Tip: monitor the prices. I found they changed markedly over a period of weeks.
Got a favorite in-flight gadget? Let me know in a comment.
Image of happy smiling XiamenAir employees from the company website.
Whenever I have to book a long flight, I wrestle with balancing cost against convenience. It doesn’t take much online savvy to know that shorter, direct flights on well-known carriers are generally the most expensive, while the 24-hour-plus routings through cities you’d never want to visit on airlines you’ve never heard of entice you with irresistible price tags.
Such was the case on my trip to Thailand earlier this year. There are a number of ways to fly into Bangkok; it’s a huge hub and many airlines use it. After much comparison of flight lengths, layover times, routings, and prices (not forgetting to include extras like booking charges and baggage fees), I found return flights on XiamenAir for an incredible $700 Cdn. The flight lengths were comparable with other airlines’. The two downsides were a 6 hr 45 min-layover on the outward journey and routing through Xiamen, China. The arrival time in Bangkok was convenient for our schedule and arrival back home also worked well. With some misgivings, I booked.
Happily, my experience on XiamenAir was no worse than on any of the other airlines I’ve taken on long flights. Check-in was fine, although they weighed the largest of our carry-on bags, which is unusual (usually they just check the dimensions). They allow two free checked bags. On the plane, there was reasonable legroom, the seats were decently comfortable. Everything was about as clean as I’d expect. They gave us a blanket and pillow, slippers and headsets for free, which is more than a lot of airlines do nowadays. We also received two free meals and a couple of snacks. The food was average airline food—but we did get a little box of chocolates for flying on Valentine’s Day, which was a nice touch. Inflight entertainment choices in English were not as extensive as on some airlines, but I had enough to keep me amused, and the choices in Mandarin were excellent!
Once we arrived in Xiamen, the challenge began. We had that long layover and there were vague promises of a free hotel room. When we checked in at YVR, we specifically asked about this and the rep assured us that this would be possible. She told us that once we arrived in Xiamen, we would have to check in for the second flight (Xiamen to Bangkok) and the check-in people would have info about the hotel. However, as we wandered from corner to corner of the Xiamen airport, it became clear that this was easier said than done. First, we couldn’t find the place to check in. We were given conflicting directions from the various people we asked. To be honest, part of the problem was that (a) their English was rudimentary, (b) our Mandarin is nonexistent, and (c) we were trying to check into a flight that didn’t depart for 6 hours. It wasn’t even listed on the departures board yet.
Once we finally located the check-in counter, we were told that we couldn’t check in until two hours before the flight and that info about the hotel was not available there, but we could ask at the International Transit Lounge. So then we started hunting around for that. (Do not—as we did—confuse the transfer area with the transit area; the former refers to the place where you connect with—transfer to—other forms of transport, such as taxis and buses.) By the time we found the lounge, we had wasted so much time that we were afraid that if we left the airport for the hotel, we would not make it back in time for the flight—especially since we still had to check in—so we opted for the lounge instead.
This lounge is nothing to get excited about. There are a few beds to lie down, but they are popular, so your chances of getting one are small. There are cushioned chairs and we pushed a couple together to make a short bed. There is water, coffee, and tea, a few room-temperature soft drinks. Packaged snacks (nuts and bolts kind of thing). No entertainment. Airport wi-fi. Remember, this is China, so you may find some of your favourite websites blocked. We couldn’t access Google and our sent emails wouldn’t go. At least it’s quiet and there are plugs to charge your electronics.
Our return flights were similar to the outgoing ones. Economy class was clean and comfy, food was okay, entertainment ample, service friendly. The layover in Xiamen was short this time, only 1.5 hours, and because you must get a transit visa (free) on arrival, go through customs and security, and exit the arrival area, then go through the whole process in reverse one more time (find the check-in counter, check in, go through customs and security, and find your gate), we had only just enough time to make our connection. The only easy part was being able to check our bag all the way through from Bangkok to Vancouver, so we didn’t have to pick it up in Xiamen. Kudos to the airline which supplied each Canadian in the line-up with a personalized document to show to passport control officials. This paper made it clear that the baffled foreigner in possession was merely in transit and did, in fact, have a seat waiting in a departing plane.
I chatted with another passenger who had arrived in Xiamen from a different country and had a 20-hour(!!!) layover. He had been offered that mythical free hotel room and had taken advantage of the time to rest and tour the city a bit.
If you’re heading to Asia and you’re a confident traveler who can handle trying to navigate through a confusing bureaucracy and a foreign airport with little assistance (some airport personal may speak a little English, if you’re lucky), I suggest you check out XiamenAir’s prices and make your own comparisons on other features. Flying through an unfamiliar city with an obscure carrier may take you out of your comfort zone, but may turn out to be worth the trouble.
Have you had an experience good or bad with a less-known airline? Share your wisdom in a comment.
My travel companions learning about First-Night Syndrome, courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.
The first 24 hours of a trip are often the most stressful. After the excitement and anticipation of planning and the bustle of packing, actually traveling to and arriving in a new place can make me want to turn around and run straight back home. I don’t know if it’s that more things can go wrong or if my capacity to deal with misadventures is particularly low as I disengage from easy routines and well-known surroundings.
I’ve had too many first nights of a trip where I lie awake listening to the unfamiliar noises, toss and turn in a bed that is too soft or too hard, inhale odd smells from a hotel pillow, and wonder why I ever left my comfortable home.
I call this “First-Night Syndrome.”
Of course, I’m always jet-lagged and have eaten little or no real food for many hours while feeling over-stimulated and exhausted at the same time, so it’s no wonder that I don’t sleep like a baby.
Sometimes, however, I have good reason for wanting to shred my passport.
Like the flight to Hawaii’s Big Island with extended family on one of my least-favourite carriers, Hawaiian Airlines. I’ve had enough bad experiences with Hawaiian that I’ve begun to suspect that the staff are all members of some underground organization dedicated to the goal of eradicating tourism in their state. On this trip, we had the cross-Pacific leg from Vancouver to Oahu and then the short hop across to Kona on Hawaii. We had an hour between flights, which was plenty of time to make the connection. All seemed to be going well until we approached Honolulu, when the pilot announced that due to the U.S. vice-president boarding a jet in the airport, all flights in and out were on hold. We circled Oahu for half an hour.
I told the flight attendant we had a connection to make and asked if there would be a problem; she reassured me. I didn’t see her fingers crossed behind her back.
As soon as we disembarked, we raced for the departure gate, arriving while the plane was still boarding. However, as the check-in agent coolly informed us, we would not be permitted to board—despite having valid tickets and being right there at the gate—because our luggage still needed to be transferred. I was stunned at this level of ineptitude. Although the entire airport had been on lock-down while the VP wended his merry way through, and every incoming flight had been delayed by half an hour, no one in Hawaiian Airlines had considered that this would mean passengers and luggage would naturally be arriving late for connecting flights, and perhaps some provision should be made for this.
The clincher in this situation was that ours was the last Honolulu-Kona flight of the day, so we were not being delayed, we were being stranded in the airport until the next morning.
After I suggested that, as the late flight was not our fault, and as the airline was well aware of the issue before we showed up, it was probably their responsibility to solve the problem, I was told that if I continued to argue, they would call security. Well done, Hawaiian: I commend you on your customer service training. This agent had aced How to Frustrate and Threaten Clients 101.
In the end, five tired people spent the night in moderate discomfort. The seating in Honolulu Airport is deliberately designed to preclude the possibility of an exhausted traveler lying prone, so I stretched out on the only non-floor area I could find, the cold and very hard narrow concrete shelf surrounding the plants. As I dozed there in some awkward and bruising position, the automatic sprinkler system switched itself on and I was duly watered.
It was a miserable “first night” of travel, just one of many I’ve chalked up. I try to remember that first nights are soon past and the rest of the trip can still be wonderful, if I don’t allow a bad beginning to ruin it. First mornings in a new place can be glorious, as when I woke up in Cairns, Australia, at sunrise to the sound and sight of hundreds of white cockatoos flying into the trees around the hotel. Or the first morning of a long-ago vacation in Hilo, when my companion and I opened our eyes to a huge picture window looking over the tropical ocean with early-morning surfers riding the waves, tinged pink from the rising sun.
Challenging circumstances can also create bonding: when you endure a bad first night along with travel buddies, if you’re lucky, the shared wretchedness creates a unity you might not achieve through many easy, fun days spent together. You gain new respect (or not) for someone based on how they come through the situation. On that not-soon-to-be-forgotten night in Honolulu, I learned that both my sister and my niece are cheerful and intrepid souls in the face of adversity. Good to know.
With the wisdom of age, I’m now able to step back and recognize the symptoms. Whether a disastrous beginning is just a case of nerves or the result of travel gone awry, I remind myself that I’m in the clutches of First-Night Syndrome, that I can get through it, and that the dawn will almost certainly usher in a fresh start to another—happier—adventure.