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Originally published May 22, 2013 at 4:09 PM | Page modified May 23, 2013 at 12:10 PM

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A very cautionary tale for summertime air travelers

One passenger’s many mishaps show an airline system stretched impossibly thin, just as a peak summer travel season approaches.

The New York Times

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“I have really good travel karma,” Carol Margolis said. “Well, almost all the time.”

Things began going wrong for her at the start of a recent three-day whirlwind trip from a small city in the south of Norway, where she was on a consulting job, to a midsize city in Colorado, where she had an important meeting.

Margolis is one of those resilient business travelers who know the drill: Always have a Plan B. And chill, knowing that some things go wrong and you simply manage.

But still, this was asking a lot.

“Well,” she said, “between the five-hour nighttime bus ride and then walking in on someone else’s hotel room in Oslo, then having to sit in 36F in coach despite a business-class ticket, then having to spend an extra $6,000 on a new ticket to get back to Norway because they didn’t have my reservation on the return flight, and then my bag not showing up, and having to buy cheap shoes that didn’t fit ... “

Whoa, there. This has all of the makings of a lesson in coping, just as the peak summer travel season approaches. Fares and fees are rising, and airplanes are impossibly crowded. The trade group Airlines for America says that airlines in the United States will carry about 209 million passengers from June through August — 27 million on international flights, the most ever. The overall numbers of flights and seats are down, however, as airlines pare routes.

Margolis, a management consultant, said that her recent trip reflected elements of a system that’s stretched so tight that there is little slack to accommodate disruptions.

“My baby just turned 29, so I know how many years I’ve been doing this, because he was 1 year old when I started traveling on business,” she said in a late-night phone call last week from Kristiansen, Norway, just after getting back to her consulting work. “And this has been the worst trip ever.”

The saga is long, but we’ll cut to the chase. First, the little European airline that was to fly her from Kristiansen to Copenhagen, the first leg of her outbound trip, canceled her flight because of a strike. That meant she would miss her scheduled trans-Atlantic flight from Copenhagen. Plan B was to go to Oslo instead, for a flight to Newark, with a connection through Chicago to Colorado Springs. So getting quickly to Oslo, at night, from Kristiansen (about 200 miles) was the first hurdle.

“I thought, I’ll drive, even though it was pouring rain,” she said. “It’s a four- or five-hour drive, which was doable. But the car rental was about $600 for a one-way drop-off, and a taxi would take me for about $1,000, so that made better sense. Then as my hotel was calling the taxi, a desk agent said, ‘What about the bus?’”

“I’m like, the bus@?” Margolis said with a touch of horror. But the bus turned out to be the cheapest and most reliable part of the trip. Exhausted, she got to a hotel in Oslo just before midnight.

“I used my key to open the door and flipped on the lights, and the room was occupied,” said Margolis, who publishes a website called Smartwomentravelers.com and blogs about her adventures. “Thankfully, I didn’t hear any screaming. Back down at the desk, they upgraded me to a better room, unoccupied — which I have to say is one tactic to score an upgrade that I’d never thought of before.”

The flight from Oslo to Newark in business class the next morning was pleasant and uneventful. But the connection to Chicago was changed to Denver instead. “Well, it’s a short hop from Denver to Colorado Springs, so I figured, no problem,” she said.

Problem. She had a first-class ticket on that itinerary but, with the change in flights and planes, no first-class seat.

“I see that I’m in Seat 36F, way in the back in coach, a row from the toilet,” she said. “I’m like, what the heck?”

Protests were unavailing. Waiting for a later flight was not an option because of her tight schedule. Off to Denver she went, crammed in a window seat.

“The guy next to me is sleeping; the guy in front of me has his seat all the way back, so I can’t use my laptop. I could barely move. I’m saying, OK, bladder, we’re in for a long ride. Still, even though you feel like crying, you think, heck, this is a stupid thing, suck it up. You’re getting where you need to be and you’re on your way.”

The morning after her meeting in Colorado Springs she went to the airport for the long haul back to Norway. Oops, although she had a $4,000 ticket in her hand, she didn’t seem to have a reservation. No one at the airport or in the vast networks of interlocking airline alliances had a clue, she said. The option was to buy an entirely new first-class ticket to Norway and let her travel agent sort it out later. The added cost: $6,000.

All’s well that ends well, she said — even the bag and her good shoes eventually showed up. But she added a note of empathy.

“If this can happen to those of us who really know what we’re doing — you know, get to an airport lounge and get help; always have a Plan B with different flights — imagine the poor traveler who doesn’t know the system and doesn’t have a clue what to do,” she said.

You’ll be seeing more of them this summer.

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