A tale of my worst travel nightmare ever (and some advice if it happens to you)
You guys, I had an amazing time in Montreal.
The food, the people, the music, it was all awesome….until I tried to head home.
Bad weather can wreak havoc on your travel plans, I know that. Years ago I was in LA for a red carpet and ended up stuck there two extra days because of a storm in NY. It’s frustrating…but what do you do?
At the time, I was a travel novice. Now, I consider myself pretty experienced in such matters — but Sunday, I was reduced to tears, and it happened with a total blind side.
Airlines consider bad weather situations—including snow storms, hurricanes, fog conditions, and so on—to be “force majeure” events or “acts of God,” and are not the fault of the airlines. Therefore, when it comes to your rights when there’s a cancellation, the one basic thing you are entitled to is a refund—no free hotel stays, no ground transportation, and no food vouchers (though airlines might offer these options at its discretion).
Sunday, I left my hotel in Montreal for a 1:30 PM flight on Air Canada, to LGA. The flight was to be 1 hour. It was beautiful in Montreal, beautiful in NY. I sailed through customs and airport security in record time…I was so sure it would be on time that I even made plans to meet a friend at 3:30 pm that afternoon in Brooklyn.
Perhaps my hubris was the root of this debacle. Who knows.
I know all the right things to do — before leaving for the airport that morning, I had reconfirmed my flight. I know that because flights connect in many different cities, a storm in one location could cause a ripple effect throughout the system. My flight was CONFIRMED.
I also sign up for alerts: I am a TripIt pro member, and also get alerts from all airlines I fly with via email AND text message — if anything happens to mess with my itinerary, I know instantly. NO alerts.
So, I was at the airport, done with security and customs, and at my gate. At the appropriate time, our flight began to board, and then we started to taxi the runway…and then stopped. The pilot comes on the PA and says that there’s a ground stop in NY, and we’ll have a bit of a delay. He’ll update us in 45 minutes.
Eventually, 4 hours go by. Due to law, after 4 hours, the plane has to be taken out of service…flight cancelled.
THEN, HERE’S THE KICKER….we discover that…because the plane has left the gate, and taxied the tarmac we’ve TECHNICALLY LEFT CANADA. Even though we NEVER LEFT THE AIRPORT.
That means, we are now required to go back through customs to “re-enter” the country – just so we can try to get a flight to leave it again.
(One wonders why we weren’t just deplaned into some sort of sterile area, and held there until the next available flight, then Canada customs clearance and a repeat US preclearance would not be required.)
Even better, we were distributed Canadian customs forms before disembarking the plane, as if we had just arrived on a flight from another country…but we didn’t. WHAT could we have bought while on that tarmac?! Visited a farm? Gone and captured some plants or livestock? Ridiculous.
Eventually, I went through customs (whereupon the agent did agree with me that this did, indeed, suck) and headed to rebook a flight — however, I was in another country. And had no working phone. It was like HELLO 1984.
If you need to rebook, there’s options: You can be like me, and wait in the customer service line FOREVER, or stay on the phone until you get through to an airline representative, get online and visit your airline’s website, or use social media (some airlines will respond to direct messages on Twitter). I had none of these options vs. the old fashioned one, so that’s what I did. Otherwise, I would have done all those options simultaneously. I waited in line two hours.
Finally, I got a flight for 10:55. AS IN THE NEXT MORNING.
So, I was stuck. I was ready to camp out for the night in the airport – and it wasn’t going to be a pretty sight. Thank Goodness, I had been in Montreal as a guest of Tourisme Montréal and the Marriott Château Champlain, so I emailed them and they booked me a room for the night. But also thank goodness for wi-fi – without that access, I’d have never been able to get in touch with them. ALWAYS get an international plan when you travel, just in case of emergencies like this. I learned this the hard way.
If you wind up stranded, it’s a good idea to get online and look for hotels with last-minute availability. Also download iPhone apps like HotelTonight or Priceline’s Tonight-Only to your phone. It was going to be my next option if I hadn’t gotten lucky — either that, or spend 12 hours or the airport bar. (Another STRONG consideration.)
The best thing you can do is ask for help though. The sad truth is we are not legally entitled to food vouchers and other perks, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. You always get more bees with honey though and people will be nice to you if you are nice to them. Ask politely, don’t ever demand or feel entitled. Airline agents will likely be stressed as well, and they will be more like to help you if you treat them with respect.
More on this in a bit.
Even with my generously offered hotel room, by the time I got there, I was so tired and sick (my travel day didn’t involve any eating all day and I felt like I was going to expire by the end of it), that I barely slept all night. By dawn, I gave up and went back to the airport, and re-crossed customs and security. (Yes, count the times I’ve entered and exited Canada in one weekend…I”m sure I’m a red flag now!) — as I got to the gate-side of the terminal, I found out there was an 8 am flight soon boarding that I could actually hop on, and I asked the gate agent if it was possible to change my ticket. She said normally, no, but considering all I had gone through, she would.
Being nice pays!!!
We board the plane, and then…we taxi the runway…and the pilot comes on. There’s ANOTHER GROUND STOP AT LGA.
Some things are so incredibly unbelievable you don’t even believe them as they are happening to you. The same exact series of events…updates every 45 minutes…until we were at the 3.5 hour mark.
At this point, we were maybe 20 minutes away from YET ANOTHER cancellation, the pilot came on and said we they had made the decision to cancel not our flight but the NEXT flight (as in the one I was originally on, lucky 10:55!) and ours was going to take off in its place. And I flew home. 26 hours after I originally left for the airport…but in what turned out to be the ONLY completed Air Canada flight to NY that day.
Which makes me lucky, I suppose?
(As an aside, I lost my favorite sweatshirt somewhere in my various airport security passes…yet another casualty of this crazy, crazy day.)