04 August 2009

What We Did During Our Summer Vacation, part 2: Worst Travel Experience EVER

Trying to get back to Armenia from Orlando turned out to be the biggest adventure -- or should I say misadventure -- of all. We were booked with Air France to fly first to Atlanta (on a Delta flight), then to Paris, and finally to Yerevan. When we went to the airport on Tuesday the 28th, the Delta agent told us there was no record of our reservation, and that our names didn't even appear anywhere in their system. We asked if we could simply purchase tickets to Atlanta so we could still catch the AF flight to Paris. But the agent said we wouldn't make it on time because she couldn't check our bags all the way to Yerevan, meaning we'd have to go to baggage claim in ATL, pick up our bags, then re-check them with Air France. Additionally, all our bags exceeded the maximum weight allowance of 70 pounds (we made the mistake of assuming Air France would have the same regulations as Lufthansa, which we flew last year -- maximum limit 100 pounds per bag), which was beyond what they could accept, even though we were prepared to pay overweight fees. Since we weren't sure what was going on with our tickets, and we didn't want to get stranded in Atlanta with half a dozen overweight bags, a baby, and no way to get home, we decided to go back to my Mom's house to figure things out.

After making a lot of phone calls to Delta, the travel agency, Air France, and QSI people, we discovered two major, though completely separate problems:
  1. The itinerary I had been looking at was from Levon Travel...the wrong travel agency. Apparently, QSI was about to book our tickets through Levon and sent me the itinerary for confirmation, but before they made the reservation, they switched to Visa-Concorde, another agency (no one told me this), which offered a nearly identical itinerary for a lower cost. I never saw the updated itinerary.
  2. Back in May, Delta canceled the flight we were scheduled to take from MCO to ATL, and supposedly they notified Visa-Concorde, but somehow Jarred and I weren't notified.
Thankfully, Air France was willing to honor our tickets, so they reserved us for Friday, July 31. In the meantime, Jarred and I reorganized the luggage to meet Air France's requirements, and brought the rest of our stuff in boxes to the Post Office and shipped it all to Yerevan. Maria flew home as expected on Wednesday without incident. My family really enjoyed the bonus time with Nathan, and Jarred and I were able to go to the theater and see Angels and Demons on Thursday.

Friday came, and we went back to the airport, armed with reservation numbers, itinerary printouts, and our acceptably overweight bags. We were all set, so after many goodbyes and "one last" pictures, we passed through security and headed for our gate. There was a 25 minute delay for some reason, but soon enough, we were on our way to Atlanta, and we even liked our seatmate, Brooke, a young woman from Birmingham who got along with Nathan so well they played together during the entire flight. We felt relieved that all the problems had been solved...or so we thought.
Nathan and Ms. Brooke

Shortly after takeoff, our captain announced that we would be flying through a bad storm system headed for Atlanta, and that the flight attendants could be required to remain seated during most of the flight for safety. Strangely, we never flew through the storm...in fact, it beat us to Atlanta. We would have to wait to land. So many other planes were ahead of us in the hold pattern, though, that after about 30 minutes of circling the airport, the captain decided we needed fuel, and re-routed us to Jacksonville -- that's right, we went BACK to Florida.

Once we were on the ground, the captain said we could get out of our seats, but we weren't going to deplane. We thought that was fine; besides, how long could it take for a simple refuel? Well, that was the quick part. Flight control said we couldn't take off again for another hour-plus. Great. The flight crew put on a movie for us -- "to help pass the time," they said. Indeed the time did pass, for by the time we were on the runway, the end credits were rolling.

Back to Atlanta. Obviously, we had missed our flight to Paris by now (for the second time), so I got in a ridiculously long line at the international ticketing desk to find out what could be done, while Jarred took Nathan to the food court for dinner. Nearly 2 hours later, the line had hardly moved, and we weren't anywhere close to the front. I left Jarred in the line and went to to see if there was someone else who could help us. I happened upon a Delta agent scanning people's boarding passes in a machine to look up information on their new flights. I gave her our tickets and the machine printed out a receipt-size "Interrupted Travel" form. She looked at it and said, "Tomorrow. Come early." I asked, "What about our luggage?" "Your luggage will be put on the flight with you tomorrow." "So I need to get a hotel for the night?" "Yes. " "Will Delta pay for the hotel?" "No, not if the missed flight was the result of weather delays. How many care kits do you need?" "[sigh] Three."

On Tuesday, when we first thought we were going to Atlanta, my Dad had had the foresight to give us a couple of Marriott discount forms (he is an associate at their Vacation Club headquarters), just in case. We used the airport's terrible sound quality courtesy phones to call Marriott reservations. All the airport area hotels were full, so we booked a night at the downtown Marriott Marquis and took a $16-per-adult-passenger shuttle there from the airport. The hotel is truly stunning, but we didn't have time to enjoy it because by the time we got to the room, it was after 11:00. I put Nathan to bed, but Jarred and I were starving, so we ordered a pizza from room service, then we passed out.

Saturday morning, we checked out and took the shuttle back to the airport (there goes another $32). We had to stand in a line even longer than the one from the night before, but at least this one was moving. When we got to the front, I handed the Delta agent our tickets and Interrupted Travel forms, and after a few minutes of searching on the computer and talking to her supervisor, she said, "I can't help you with this. There's no reservation for you from Atlanta to Paris, only Paris to Yerevan. You'll have to speak to an Air France representative, but their desk doesn't open until 2:15." Lovely.

Waiting for the Air France ticketing desk to open.

We ate lunch in the food court, then went and sat on the floor in front of the Air France desk at 1:00. Nathan fell asleep, so we arranged our travel pillows on the SmarteCart we were using to push around our carry-on bags, and that's where he took his nap. At 2:15 on the dot, the Air France desk was open for business. Because of all the other people who had been re-booked due to Friday night's weather delays, all the agent could do was put us on standby for the 6:15 flight. Not wanting to hang around at the airport with Nathan for another 4 hours, just crossing our fingers for something that surely wouldn't happen, we requested to be put on the Sunday flight. Better to stay another night in a comfortable hotel and take a break from the stress-fest that this trip had become.

Waiting for our ride to the hotel.

I called Marriott reservations again, and this time there was availability at the Renaissance Concourse, right next to the airport, with free shuttle service. This too was a beautiful hotel, and since we checked in at 3:30, we had some time to relax. The mood of all the guests was very light and festive as a result of three family reunions and a wedding being held there that weekend. We had an excellent view of the airport, and Nathan loved sitting on our balcony watching the planes taking off and landing literally less than a mile away. After getting settled in our room, I used one of the computers in the hotel business center to contact everyone and let them know what was going on, then I took a cab to the nearest Kroger's grocery store because we needed more diapers.

A snack with a view.

Dinner at the Concorde Grill, the hotel's acclaimed restaurant, was fabulous, and we ordered the movie 17 Again to watch in our room once Nathan fell asleep. Sunday morning, we enjoyed a scrumptious breakfast buffet at the Grill before we had to pack up and head back to the airport. It was hard to believe that after all this time, we still hadn't crossed the Atlantic!

Third time's a charm, as the saying goes. We checked in at the Air France desk at 2:30 -- no problem -- and boarded our plane around quarter to 6. Aside from Nathan keeping us up all night with his superhuman energy levels, the flight went smoothly.

Asleep at ATL gate E14.

Watching a movie on the transatlantic flight.

We arrived at Charles De Gaulle on time, and we went straight to our next gate, where we would try to rest for the four and a half hours before the final leg of our journey. There were computer stations and a kids' play area at the gate across from ours, so that kept us occupied for a while, too. At last, it was time to board AF2998 to Yerevan.

Too bad we didn't have a real rocket ship...

Oh, the thrill of a large, slow-moving conveyor belt!

The flight attendants were kind enough to put us in an empty row so we had three seats all to ourselves. Nathan slept hard for about 3 hours. The in-flight movie was the summer blockbuster Star Trek, which we really wanted to see, but we were so tired that we simply couldn't keep our eyes open for the whole thing. We landed at EVN only a few minutes late due to some stormy weather around the city. We experienced quite a bit of turbulence throughout the flight, and unfortunately, it was so violent during our descent into Yerevan that poor Nathan threw up all over me and himself just before we landed, and of course, we couldn't do anything about it until we arrived at the gate. Jarred felt really queasy for a while, too. It was definitely the roughest landing I've ever experienced, but at least no one was hurt. I thought for sure that was the grande finale of our crazy trip!

But Murphy's Law had one more surprise in store for us. After all the cleaning up and changing clothes we had to do, we were last off the plane...then someone approached me and said, "Are you Angela Blackmer?" I said yes, and she told us that she had received some information that one of our bags didn't make it to Yerevan, and that we should go to the Lost and Found counter at baggage claim. I think I was so exasperated at this point that it was impossible for me to express any more frustration; I just looked at her blankly and said, "Thank you."

Thankfully, like last year, when the airport officials saw Nathan, we got priority at passport control and didn't have to wait in line (people here LOVE babies and will never let them cry for even a moment if they can help it), so we went straight through to the luggage carousels. We found three items, but after a lot of waiting, we were still missing Nathan's car seat and 2 bags. We went to the counter and the lady looked up our tags on the computer -- apparently, all of the three missing items were still in Paris, but she got our number and address and said they would call when the bags arrived so they could deliver them to us.

Sargis was waiting to pick us up, and maybe it's a good thing all our stuff didn't arrive because he had come in his personal car, instead of the school van, like we were expecting, and there wouldn't have been space for everything. We got home after 10pm, spent a few minutes chatting with the Olsons over a yummy vegetable stew Hasmik had cooked for us, and then we collapsed into bed.

Finally, here we sit, still waiting to hear from the airport regarding our missing luggage, but glad to be home safe and sound, despite everything that happened. And I really ought to mention how incredibly patient and well-behaved Nathan was during this entire ordeal...rather impressive for a toddler. Thus ends our tale of misfortune. The moral of the story is: when traveling around the world, pack light -- but in your carry-on bag be certain to keep extra cash, an extra set of clothes, and an extraordinary sense of humor.

An American boy in Yerevan.
(Thanks to Ben LaTorre for the Red Sox uniform.)


Kevin Albrecht said...

Holy crap that is an insane story! So glad you finally made it, though. It was so nice to see you guys in Virginia.

Melissa said...

Hot damn, what an epic tale! I thought I had it rough the time Erik and I had 15 minutes to get off a plane, drive around Charles De Gaulle airport, go through passport control and security and find our gate (which we did), but clearly I was wrong!
I'm glad to hear you landed and got home safely! And like Kevin said, it was so great to see you this summer!

Mercedes said...

Great lessons in patience, being prepared and world travel. Here's another lesson to take away: CONFIRM RESERVATIONS EARLY, as well as BAG LIMITS. We enjoyed your extended visit with us despite the circumstances, and got to have some quality time with little Nathan! Till next time - Prayers and blessings!
Love, Mom