Friday, January 9, 2009

Holiday Traveler Part 1-C: Gettin' To The 'Gettin' There

I guess I'd better close the book on this holiday traveling misadventure before it torments me into a whimpering puddle of goop!  I keep looking back at the first two stages of this fiasco and I shudder knowing the complete story has not been told.  Funny, I was quite sure I could share the fun in just one entry, and the backstory alone killed that hope!  How could I possible know, holed up in the middle of nowhere my whole life, that travel of this scope during this time would be such an enormous undertaking.  Three blog entries later, I think it is coming to me now!

And mind you, this is only the trip THERE...we still have the trip back to recap, too!  Grrr....  And, you will find as we soldier on that karma will play a key roll in some of the goings-on throughout this trek. 

So, when last we left our adventurers, they were ensconced in a motel in Charlotte, fearlessly marching on toward the final destination of 'home' for the holidays.  We had succumb to the weather, the airline, pets and kids, surcharges and a goegraphy-challenged cabbie.  Sounds like a banner day to me!

Well, we hung in at the hotel as long as allowed, knowing that our plane wasn't going to be leaving until mid afternoon at the earliest.  Thankfully the hotel provided an airport shuttle, and we felt confident - since it was called an "airport shuttle" - that the driver would know his way to the airport.  He did!  Okay, we are off to a good start.

Once at the airport, we knew we'd have several hours to kill, at best we'd get a seat on the 'stand-by' flight at 4:45 and get out a little earlier, but that still left time to waste.  So we wandered a bit, did some airport mall shopping (no, not overpriced AT ALL), crept through the inspection line once or twice for 'fresh air' and sat down for a lunchtime snack.  In the sports bar where we dined, I noticed the NFL game between my beloved Cardinals and the Patriots.  The game was being played in New England, and my eyes grew to the size of plates when I got my first glimpse of the game.  You see, if you watched that game, you know it was played in a blizzard!  As I watched, I thought to myself..."what the f*** are we flying into?!?!"  If we fly at all.

Much to my surprise, the 'stand-by' actually paid off.  At the last moment, we were granted two seats on the earlier flight...which had been delayed by weather until after 5PM.  I immediately phoned home to my Dad who was in stand-by to pick us up.  We're on our way - and, at only a 2-hour flight, we'd get there long before he could arrive.  No matter, we were in the home stretch!!!

Our flight to Syracuse concluded without incident.  The travel time was well short enough that another damn dog and another wailing child did not dampen my spirits.  As a bonus, even our baggage arrived!  This day was going much better!

Here's where the karma kicks in.  Now, we knew - very well knew - that we were going back North in the dog days of winter...when any assortment of Mother Nature's wrath could descend.  So, after assembling our bags and finding a bench to wait for Pop, we took our first step outside for a, fresh hit us - IT WAS FREAKIN' COLD!  Like, insanely cold!  And windy!  I believe the thermometer said 20 below human.  Brrrr AND Grrrr....

Anyone who has ever travelled around the Syracuse / Watertown areas knows all too well of the anomaly known as 'lake effect snow' and how insane amounts of snow and chaos can show up here, only here, and nowhere else, for extended period of time - for no good meteorological reason.  I think there have even been blizzards through here in August.  Well, what we couldn't see from our curled up selves on the bench inside the terminal was this weather event is exactly what was unloading outside at this moment - in fact, all day.  And poor Dad was trying to drive through it to get us!

Oh yeah, 'karma.'  So, it is no secret that - since we have been in Arizona, I have made it my mission to mock and taunt everyone back in the north when it is snowy, cold and miserable there and sunny and warm in AZ.  Never miss a chance!  I suspect the thousand or so times I chided the weather discrepancies, it was all adding up.  And Mother Nature copped a karma squat on our unsuspecting heads.  I guess I'd better take the blame for this.

Having left Malone at around 5PM, poor Pop finally wheeled into Syracuse International Snowport after 10PM.  That's right - 5 hours to make a near 3 hour trip.  It was that bad.  And it wasn't getting any better.

We did our hugs and 'missed you' and set out to get home.  Um, did I mention it didn't get any better out there?  I regained my finely tuned wingman skills and let Dad take the wheel while I watched the road and other various wintery calamities that may be lurking around the next bend.  Funny, as we rolled on...there were times when, that road I was watching for him, just sort of - um - DISAPPEARED!  Yeah, what the...?  So much snowing and blowing, even an action film wouldn't go to this extreme to prove a point that it is freakin winter out here!  And, God Bless the man, Pop pushed on!  

At one point, there were no roads, reflectors, lights, humanity...nothing!  We slowed to a crawl for most of the trip, stopping once as my wife had become so petrified of traveling in this gobbledy-gook she looked like a statue and needed to stretch her atrophied muscles.  We were Northerners by stock and trade, we should still have the patience and resolve to get through this, right?  I knew from the moment we stepped out the door at the Syracuse airport exactly why we moved down south...and boy, was I missing it now!

Many cups of coffee and 5 more hours later (the trip to Hogansburg is usually only 2 1/2 hours, so it had gotten worse than when they came down) we pulled into our resting place for the week - my Mommy's place.  It was now 3AM eastern time!  Mom, being Mom, was still wide awake and waiting for us...and poor Dad still had to drive home in this slop to Malone.  Thanks a million Dad!!!  Poor guy...

So, there we were - a trip that had started almost two days earlier, finally - FINALLY - we made it 'home!'  It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Lest this string of three posts be misconstrued, I had A GREAT TIME at home for the holidays and it was so great to see everyone and spend time with everyone!  The joys and experiences will be posted in a separate blog at a later date.  I just wanted to share some travel tips and haunting images, lest ye be scared to make a voyage sometime to someplace....Because we all know it isn't about where you are going, it's all about the GETTIN THERE!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Holiday Traveler Part 1-B: Goin' To The 'Gettin' There

You were riveted, I know! When last we left, I had great fears about my airline and the trip North for the holidays. I spent the days leading up attempting to harness my chi and prep for the adventures ahead. Lest all my preparation was for not, most of what was ahead...I just never saw it coming.

So came the day it was time to leave. We were armed with our baggage and prepped for the trip. We pulled into an economy parking garage and made our way to the terminal on a shuttle with relative ease...and the terminal was relatively empty and ticket counters seemed quiet but moving quickly. Hey, we're off to a good start. So it seemed.

I knew going into this a few things were non-negotiable - the airports along the way would be busier than normal due to the holidays, people would be traveling with children more so than usual, and it was US Airways so a hiccup would appear at some point. Armed with a higher than usual sense of tolerance, we got our tickets, checked our bags and prepped for the flight North. Except - our first flight from Phoenix to Charlotte, NC...well, it was delayed - AND we didn't have a seat number on our ticket! We were on 'stand-by!' What the...? A delayed flight in the sunny southwest, and the ticket we paid for didn't come complete with a seat? Here we go!

Oh, and - by the by - lest we forget the ticket price that also does not necessarily guarantee a seat also does NOT cover the baggage...or a small morsel or food to much on...or a simple sip or water...or even a clean, clear tray table to rest upon. Yes, you see - in the guise of 'increased fuel prices,' airlines found a new means to add rates to your flight. To cover increased petrol prices, they began charging for baggage - more bags, more cost. Fair enough...but, um, er...the f***ing prices went down - WAY down! But those charges didn't go away. Oh, yeah - that mini bag of 2 gotta pay for that. That cup of water or shot glass of burnt coffee? Yeah, you're paying for that too! And, because 'fuel is expensive,' US Airways is even selling ad space on the fold down tray tables attached to the seatback in front of you. Either that or they picked up a surplus of "Leverage" TV show tables from an auction somewhere. So, our value ticket turned into a pretty expensive ticket after all...and that still didn't eliminate the words 'stand' and 'by' from the conversation. What a raquet!

Upon an uneventful and relatively swift passage through the al Qaeda, 'inspection area,'...we hustled up to our departure gate. Though I must say, for every trip through the scanners and TSA people, it never ceases to amaze me how - every time - someone has to kick and scream about taking off their shoes, or coats, or belts, or take things out of their bags to get through this security zone. Folks, we have been comfortably tucked under the blank of fear for over 7 years now. This is the result of our spoon-fed paranoia, so it should come as no surprise this government-sanctioned scan of you and your person is now old news and mandatory. Suck it up, take your damn laptop out of your bag, and move along!

Anyway, we arrived to our window and were able to glean from passenger chatter and a lucky 8-ball we had to shake - because you'll never get a 'customer service rep' to actually give you, the customer, actual service - that the delay was due to serious east coast weather and the flight we were to board was coming in from the east off a delay. So, the plane would arrive late and therefore leave late. We were also told that our seats were 'stand-by' because this airline ALWAYS oversells planes in case people don't show or miss their connection, then there will be back up people waiting to fill those empty seats. I was able to glean this from Genghis Kahn at Gate 19 who was still on stand-by from a US Airways flight from the year 1225. He is hopeful!

All the while, we knew we had only about 1 hour of layover in Charlotte between this plane landing and the other plane departing. And the flight we MAY be boarding is delayed 2 hours. Hmmmm....Mine Math Skilz Gud - Telz Mee Wee Bee Missun Connexshun! Yet, the 'customer service reps' make no attempt to prep us for this delayed flight and possible missed connection by hooking us up with a flight that will actually be on time. After all, we are only on 'stand-by' and may as well be lepers.

Frik. Frik. Frik!

Also, in the sea of hostile flight-delayed humanity, I demonstrated a marked calm for me...I was prepped for this likelihood from this airline. But, I noticed a trend I was not prepared for - many MORE and younger children flying than I was ready for...and DOGS! Bags upon ventilated, tiny carry-on bags of dogs! What the...? Are there no kennels in this town? No nice neighbor who'll mind "Pooky" while you're away? Does this dog really need to fly cross country with you to spend Christmas with Grandma? My paranoia was starting to fester, because - deep down inside - I knew that sitting somewhere within a seat of me in any direction, the screaming children and the mangy mutts would be parked right there!

Finally - a glint of hope! There were only two seats open on the outbound plane...and they 'gave' them to us. Bless the sweet charity! The seats that we PAID for - they really, really gave them to us! But, they were in opposite ends of the plane so I would not be sitting next to my wife. Dammit! Guess who I would be sitting next to? The TWO screaming kids, and the doggie bag carrying case complete with some whimpering labradoodle! On the bright side, it would only be a little over 3 hours on the plane - not enough time for my throat to close from pet allergies or become clinically insane from sobbing children. I have magazines, movies...enough to pass the time. At least we're on the plane and moving!

But, what about that connecting flight in Charlotte that is supposed to bring us to Syracuse? Oh, we'll never know until we hit the ground! But, math skills still keenly alert, our flight did leave over two hours late - and there's no way we'd get to Charlotte in time for the flight out to Syracuse! BUT WAIT! This airplane we just boarded came in from the east - where the flights were all, doesn't that mean ALL of the planes in the east are suffering from this same 2-hour delay?! But of course - why wouldn't they? Or, knowing that a plane wasn't full because a connecting flight was delayed and would be late...they'd hold that plane until we got there, right?! Oh -wait - I'll bet that there are people on 'stand-by' in Charlotte for the Syracuse flight....

Frik. Frik. Frik!

Surprisingly enough, we survived the dog-hair, child-spittle infused flight to the east. Low and behold, that Syracuse flight did - in fact - leave without us. A glimmer of hope in my own throbbing mind was that Charlotte's version of Genghis Khan may have finally been able to get his seat on stand-by and arrive in Syracuse to conquer and pillage and whatever else he may have planned for the holidays. I smiled.

We, the poor dopes who's end destination was to be Syracuse (and there were others on our plane) were dealt the cold, hard truth that NO more flights were leaving for Syracuse on this night...and the next flights were later the next day...and we'd likely be on 'stand-by!' Ha ha!

When we got to the 'Customer Service Desk' - we did get some service in Charlotte - we we told that we would be guaranteed a seat on the 8PM flight, but could go stand-by on an earlier flight the next day. Also, because the delays were "weather related, sir" and no fault of the airlines, they would not toss us the perks of the useless free ticket or a free hotel room for the night. Only some flights - not all - were delayed by the weather, so they must have 'rounded up' when they formulated how Mother Nature affected the travel day and not the company itself. They did give us a 50% off voucher at the flee bag of our choosing, but we had to call and make our own reservations - and then get there ourselves. Harrumph!

So, we left with our tickets - a real 8PM flight and a fake 4:35PM flight (yep, 'stand-by')- and made the call for some pillows. A discount broker booked us at the Cheep-N-Sleep somewhere and gave us the address. We proceeded to the exit to hail a cab. Our baggage remained at the airport to be redirected to the next Syracuse flight. No matter what, it would arrive before us. I asked if we could pack ourselves in it, that would assure we'd make it. Alas, the Customer Service lady was not amused at my observation and perhaps would have eaten me had we not shuffled off. So, I did think to pack a spare set of clothes in my carry-on bag (because, this was US Airways after all and odds of us being stuck somewhere were favorable) with miscellaneous smell-good so I could at least be fresh for the next trip - whenever it may be. But Trina did not, so she'd be clean and fresh, but clad in day-old airport-funk-covered clothes. Oh, well...

So, we leaped into the next available cab and told the cabbie where we were headed - the hotel's name and the address we were given by the broker who surely lived somewhere else and never knew Charlotte was an actual city and not just a common female name. Our driver, let's call him "Bob" lest I be tagged a profiler, looked at us with a glint of confusion and just a smattering of self doubt - as if we gave him directions to the Temple of Lost Souls. Dude, this is your city - and you're a cab driver - and we're staying at a hotel know, 'near' the airport. I am speaking English, I know it! But, "Bob" may not be well versed in English as I suspect it isn't Bob's native tongue. Yikes!

So, away we a destination we have never been to and one, we'd find out later, he hadn't either! After bringing us to the hotel section near the airport and seeing that the hotel we had booked was, in fact, NOT here - he mentioned to us that we gave him a wrong address and he was going no further. Oh, did I mention that he had a GPS mounted on his dash that he wasn't using? Whatever - he pulled into an Econo Lodge where Trina scurried in to see if they had rooms available. We asked the driver to stay while we checked on rooms - his limited grasp of the local language left him befuddled, so i decided to pay the man and send him away - hopefully to study the local landscape on Google maps when he gets a little down time from taking vistors on a wild goose chase. Thankfully, there was a room available.

So, we settled in, ordered some fine cuisine and hunkered down for the night. At least the weather was nice in Charlotte! Rest up kiddies - Tomorrow, it is Round II with US Airways and the last portion of the voyage to Syracuse and then back home. Dashed are the dreams of making what is usually a one day trip in one actual day.

I wasn't prepared for this!

TO BE CONTINUED (gee, the first part of this trilogy is really taking long to tell - see what I mean?!)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Holiday Traveler Part 1-A: The 'Gettin' There

I had promised to blog about the adventures to cross-country travel over the holidays, and purposely delayed my initial posts so I could mellow a bit about the whole ordeal. Additionally, as I tried to collect my impressions I decided I might be better served by breaking this out into a thrill-a-minute trilogy. It opens with the gripping tale of the west-to-east adventure, then segues to the enjoyable yet truncated week of holiday merriment, then it concludes with the east-west escape plan. Each is a separate event to its own, and deserves to be treated as such. So, come along with me and share in the adventure that is "going home for the holidays."

Again, it seems, I always have to preface my holiday voyage issues with the caveat that I WAS happy and excited to spend holidays with friends and see everyone as I do miss them...but I did NOT want to go back to the Gulag of the North. The best scenario would be to wedge myself into a tax bracket such that I could bring everyone here during the winter...or see if Santa would be hip to rescheduling his big day to sometime in mid-June. Alas, I fear neither is a reality. So, buckle up for the journey into the center of winter...during the holidays!

It had been a plan - nay, a non-negotiable truth - that we would be heading back to the North Woods for the holidays. At issue in the early stages was the length of said trip, which - as it turns out - was also predetermined and not a bargaining concept. It would be a flight out on the Saturday before the holidays and a flight home on the Saturday after Christmas. This would give us ample time to meet up with as many folks as possible, do some light shopping for gifts we couldn't ship or pack, and 'acclimate' us with the December weather. Hmmm...okay!

So, we haven't even left yet and we had flight issues. I don't know if you were in the loop, but when we flew here to move here, we booked a one-way flight on US Airways from Ottawa to Phoenix. Here is a name that will be recurring throughout these many posts - US Airways. For those of you who travel, you may have had good luck with this company...I on the other hand have had 100% dissatisfaction with them, but have always been encouraged that they could find new ways to manhandle my travel plans.

Anyway, on our flight to Phoenix for our big move and life-altering journey to begin...our plane(s) were delayed, we got bumped out of an oversold flight and left stranded in Washington, DC for a night...or perhaps longer on "stand-by" which is more widely known as "stranded for days on end in a skank covered terminal with the blind and pointless hope of ever getting a seat on an outgoing plane." I guess "stand-by" reads better.

As a way to appease this misguided attempt to effort us away to the southwest, US Airways attempted to appease our anger and disillusionment with two FREE round-trip tickets to anywhere in the continental US. YIPPEE! On one hand, we got some free tickets which we could use to travel home for Christmas and save some money...but, on the other hand, that ensured that we would once again park our fannies inside my least favorite airline. Turns out I was more right than I wanted to be on only one of these points.

As you may expect, "free" is a loose and abject term with lots of holes and far too slippery to capably grabbed onto. Attempting to use these 'free' tickets was akin to getting God, the Easter Bunny and the Jolie-Pitts over for dinner - a little too tricky for mere mortals. In order to use these 'free' tickets in or around Christmas, we would have had to leave in 1948 from Kabul, have 23 layovers and not get a return flight until sometime in 2099...maybe...and it would be on an oversold flight. Hmmm....that seems decidedly inconvenient. Thanks for the 'free' tickets US Airways...I wish I had a parakeet cage to line with these.

So, we abandoned the idea of using these tickets and Trina began the quest for finding tickets on-line. I was concerned that it would be diffifcult to find a holiday flight plan as so many people travel about the states to be home or run away from home. The busiest flying time of the year, I knew finding a flight would be equal parts difficult and pricey. Turns out I was more right than I wanted to be on only one of these points.

Supply and demand means that everyone wants to travel, so planes must now be VERY expensive means of transportation during holidays...and they are. Doing the standard Orbitz / Priceline / CheapAssFlights search, my wife found the 'cheapest' flight to and from 'home' during the time line she had decided, and the schedule looked good. Leaving midday, only one short layover, destination Syracuse and my Dad offered to come and pick us up at the airport as he is now in the Land of the Retired (meaning he's bored out of his gourd and ready for the chance to do ANYTHING!). The arrival and departure dates were spot-on, layovers were short and things were looking good! And the airline? Why, US Airways, of course!

Mind you, this is not a knock on my wife in any way for booking them. They were the least expensive, they offered the best flight plans both ways (we all know how those 'best laid plans' go) and had seats available when others did not. So, with finances tight, we signed on.

Now that we have a flight booked, I was preparing myself for what I knew would be a traveling nightmare - heading home (wherever home is) for Christmas. There is an unending stream of films and TV shows that make light of the trials and travails of going cross-country to get 'home' for the holidays. In a manner similar to that of a prize fighter prepping himself for the title fight, I spent the weeks leading up to our departure as a means to psych myself up for this trip. All the while, in the back of my mind, I knew that we were going to experience a week of the North's most horrible cold and snow and wintry nonsense...which, by now it has been well documented, I don't miss and rather loathe. Always focused on the end game which was spending the holidays with the family and friends back home, I got myself geared up in the best way I knew how. Patience, dear boy - patience!

For all the pre-fight work I did leading up to the trip and the departure date, I wasn't ready for this!