Earlier this year, I sensed that travel was about to become easier around the world and, with most pre-booked tickets fully refundable and my mother’s 90th birthday coming up in Scotland in June, I thought I’d get in early and get some cheap return flights to the UK.
I called up my mate (and MildRover contributor) Kieran Prendiville to rebook our covid-postponed annual hike, this time nominating the Great Glen Way, from Fort William to Inverness in Scotland. He was up for it and we locked in the dates.
Then I was able to score premium economy return tickets using only half my available Qantas Frequent Flyer points plus $190. Whoo-hoo! Okay, I would be flying out via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific and British Airways, returning on BA, but this was the bargain of a lifetime
That was about the last piece of good news I received relating to this cursed trip. And, fair warning, if you aren’t interested in the nuts and bolts of how a carefully planned and booked return trip to the UK can become a fraught round-the-world marathon, stop reading now.
About six weeks out, I got an email from Qantas with the heading “your trip details have changed”.
Experienced travellers will know this usually means something like the flight is leaving at 10 past rather than 5 past the hour. But I thought I’d better check. Hmmm. It turned out one of my flights wasn’t leaving at all.
Cathay Pacific was still flying me from Sydney to Honk Kong but BA was no longer taking me to the UK. Okay, no panic. I knew it had all been too good to be true and I thought I’d just bite the bullet, flash the plastic and actually pay for the missing leg.
I called Flight Centre who are pretty good at knitting these things together and they explained that the reason BA had cancelled my flight was that the authorities had changed the rules in HK and, if you were changing carriers as well as flights, you were deemed to have “arrived” and were therefore subject to 14 days quarantine.
I briefly considered burning the points for the Sydney-HK flight and booking another flight on a different route, but the Flight Centre guy said that if I didn’t turn up for the first flight, Qantas would cancel the whole round trip. Yikes!
In the meantime my sister called and said my mother had suffered a mild heart attack and they weren’t sure if she was going to make it to her birthday. It was up to me but if I wanted to come sooner, it might be an idea.
Iwas going to have to bring my flights forward anyway and after two days of trying to get through to Qantas to cancel my flights and book new ones I remembered I was a member of their Business Frequent Flyer program so I called them up and got through almost immediately.
Next thing I knew, my points had been returned and I was booked on coach (boo-hoo!) on an earlier flight to Glasgow on Emirates. Now, Emirates coach is almost as good as some airlines’ premium, so I wasn’t too fussed, and I would be flying straight to Scotland, completely by-passing the organised insanity of Heathrow.
A week or so later, I got a call from my son who lives in Richmond, Virginia, in the USA. He’d been unwell for a while – a genetic liver condition (thanks, Mum and Dad!) – and he was going to have a transplant within the next month or so.
Back on the phone to Qantas, I tried to trade in my rapidly dwindling points for a flight to Dallas and then up to Richmond – by far the most efficient way of getting there using Qantas points, if you’re interested, if only because it avoids the nightmare of LAX.
I had already spotted the availability on SkyScanner but the Qantas lady wasn’t having it. I couldn’t use points to add in an American Airlines flight to Richmond as they weren’t codeshare partners (they are, by the way).
It was getting late on a Friday night so I gave up, determined to sort it out the following Monday. All I needed was the points back, then I could book the flights myself.
Monday rolled around and, predictably, the computer said “no”. The flights I wanted to book had gone, but there were others a couple of days later. The call to another operator went something like this.
“Hi, I just like to cancel a flight and get my points refunded”
“Okay, do you want a refund or a voucher?’
“What’s the difference?”
“A refund takes a few weeks, a voucher is pretty much immediate.”
“I’ll take the voucher?”
“May I ask what you want it for?”
“I want to fly to Richmond, Virginia, via Dallas, premium economy …”
Click, click, click …
‘Hmmm. I can get you to LAX premium, but then it will be coach on American via …”
He then reeled off a number of cities with names familiar from cowboy movies and race riots.
“It’s okay, I said. “I just want the points.”
“When are you planning to fly, because I can sort that out for you ..”
“Just the points, please …”
“Premium to LAX is filling up …”
“I’m begging you, please don’t book anything. Just arrange for the points to be returned.’
“I thought you said you wanted to go to Richmond?”
“I do. But, I’d rather go via Dallas.”
‘Oh, yes. You did say that. Let me check …”
“No. No checking. Just the points please.”
Eventually he suppressed his instincts to be overly helpful and pushed whatever button was required to cancel the Emirates flight and send my points winging back towards me. I then began a frantic search for the flights I had identified earlier, hoping to book them through the Qantas website.
Rising prices, falling options
I’ll take a pause here to point out that, at every stage, with every delay, my options were narrowing and the costs of each flight were rising. Why? Because the world was opening up and everyone who wanted to fly and who was allowed to do so was flying somewhere.
Also, on the question of Premium Economy, I truly don’t need the legroom and I probably don’t need the additional seat width.
But I do need the solid arm rests containing the tray tables, if only to restrain the giants who track me down with laser-like precision every time I fly economy, and seem to think they are entitled to shift their blubber into my space, as they take full control of the arm rests, including swinging them up out of the way when the seatbelt sign goes off.
Fat-shaming? Me? I’m not thin – far from it – but he sooner airlines put their passengers and their luggage on the same scales and charge per kg, then seat bigger people in wider seats, the happier I’ll be. I don’t want sweaty bits of strangers invading my space.
There should be a preference box when you are booking that allows you to select the kind of passengers you’d prefer to have in the seat next to you. For me, that would be a yes to gymnasts (for their ability to climb over you without waking you) and marathon runners (for the lack of space they occupy).
Then, for obvious reasons, it would be a hard “no” to alcoholics, people with urinary complaints and former players in either of the rugby codes. Oh, and men over 60 (like me) should be required by law to sit in the aisle seats.
Mind the gap
Back to the trip and a medical update: Mum was now back in her care home and perking up a lot. Meanwhile, unexpectedly, No. 1 Son had been rushed into hospital as a donor had been found. It was all happening.
I now have flights from Sydney to Richmond, via Dallas, and from London to Sydney, but nothing in between. I have extended my trip from two weeks to nearly four to accommodate, first my transplant wait-listed son and secondly my ageing but recovering mother.
Now, I have to think ahead. I need to get from Richmond (VA) to Glasgow at some point, preferably with the transatlantic leg in premium economy. When I do my searches, I discover there’s a company called businessclass.com which also finds reduced cost premium economy seats. I decide to give them a whirl.
The results were encouraging at first but ultimately disappointing. Their online chat-bot was not equipped to deal with my admittedly arcane requests and for the first couple of days they were offering flights on the wrong days.
When they did come up with suggestions, it was either a flight from Richmond to Chicago or Boston, then a long lay-over before or during a flight to Glasgow via Iceland or Frankfurt either of which would get me to Glasgow a day late.
However, the clock was ticking on my departure and I reckoned if Icelandair flew from those northern US cities, they probably also flew out of New York too, which would represented shorter hops.
Sorry Businessclass.com, but thanks for the idea. I was able to score flights from Richmond to JFK in the afternoon, then to Glasgow via Rekjavik with a comfortable four-hour layover in JFK, just in case anything went wrong.
Just in case … huh!
The flight to Dallas was uneventful although I was surprised to discover they are now using Dreamliners rather than A380s. I guess it’s all about demand.
A train in Texas?
I stopped overnight in Fort Worth where my long-time journo friend Barry Schlachter lives. I could have caught a flight straight to Richmond in the afternoon but the thought of arriving there, hiring a car and trying to drive on the wrong side of the road in a strange city after 20 hours of non-stop flying didn’t seem such a crash-hot idea.
The next day I discovered to my surprise that Dallas has a very clean and efficient commuter train that takes you straight to the airport. Who knew? I thought using public transport in Texas was a sign of communism.
By the way, before leaving I had downloaded a mobile phone app called TripCase into which you load all your flights, hotels, car hires and restaurant bookings etc.
And all the time I was wandering around Dallas Airport, hopping on and off the monorail that links its five terminals, trying to find my departure gate, TripCase was buzzing madly in my pocket trying to tell me the gate had changed … twice. It’s an absolutely brilliant app … if you bother to check it.
Having arrived at the airport with a couple of hours to spare, the plane was already halfway boarded by the time I made it to the gate. This was a hint of what was yet to come.
I spent a few days with my lad who was recovering well from his real traumas. Then starting the next stage of my round-the-world marathon, got to Richmond airport early, having dropped off the monster truck the rental car people had foisted on me (a whole other story).
I also embarked on daily RATs because I was visiting him in hospital. A ritual I had to renew in Scotland when visiting Mum in her care home. I have never felt so pristinely uninfectious in my life.
By my reckoning I would have a long wait at Richmond, which was fine, then more than four hours at JFK, which was also fine. I was going to have to pick up my bags and check them in for the next leg anyway, due to the flights being on a different booking number.
As departure time approached it became apparent that there was something missing … the plane. It turned out there had been a violent storm in New York and flights had been delayed. That was OK. I had four hours up my sleeve … then three … then two.
Finally the plane arrived and we all boarded, buckled up and tried to relax as we pulled away from the airbridge … and then stopped. JFK had been shut down completely for a while, the pilot told us, and now there were delays as they tried to clear the backlog. We couldn’t leave until they had a slot for our landing.
Half an hour later, we took off. It was okay. We were going to make it and I still had a buffer of about an hour … maybe.
Don’t ask, just apologise
We landed at JFK and taxied to the terminal … then stopped. The plane that was supposed to have vacated our gate was still there. It had some sort of a problem. Tick, tick, tick. Half an hour passed. There was a minor mutiny as passenger who had told their bladders they’d be on the ground by now were ignoring the ‘fasten seat-belt’ signs and the steward’s pleas and were storming the toilets.
“I’m gonna pee on myself” a large African-American woman said in a delightful if stressed Southern accent as the steward gestured to stop her then changed his mind as she barrelled towards him. I was about to follow suit when the plane finally moved.
Parked and disembarked, I race to find a toilet in the terminal. It had little red plastic barriers across the door, bearing a “closed for cleaning” sign. Cursing a little too loudly but getting an “amen” from a man who’d had a similar plan, I did something I’ve never done before – I kicked the barrier aside and marched in, saying “Sorry! Emergency”.
To the dismay of the cleaner watching the footprints mess up his freshly mopped floor, I was followed by a gaggle of soon-to-be relieved male travellers. This was definitely one of those situations when it was easier to apologise after than seek permission before.
Now, as the departure time for my Icelandair flight approached, I had to find the baggage hall, get my bags, get to another terminal and check in. In other words, Mission Impossible.
There was panic at the baggage carousel, which was about half a kilometre away, as the flight from Richmond wasn’t listed on the board. Eventually my bags appeared and I sprinted out of the terminal, cursing my tendency to overpack, crossed several roadways and took the lift up to the JFK monorail.
“There’s a line”
I had less than five minutes before the Icelandair flight was due to close its doors. One thing I have learned from working with Americans is that they tend to say “pardon me” where we might say “excuse me” when we’re pushing our way through a crowd. “Excuse me” is taken to be a little accusatory by some folk.
So I begged a thousand pardons as I got off the little train, ran into the terminal, and found the Icelandair check-in desk where a cluster of airline staffers were dealing with a woman at the head of a group of agitated Scandinavians.
“Pardon me … pardon me …” I mumbled as I pushed my way to the front.
“Sir, there’s a line …”
“Yes, but …”
“There’s a line, sir!”
“Yes, I said. There’s a line of you guys dealing with one person, and no one dealing with me.”
One of the woman’s colleagues muttered something about the people in the crowd not flying for four hours and then I remembered … premium economy.
‘I’m booked Saga class,” I said. “Priority check-in?”
The first woman rolled her eyes but indicated to her colleague to check me in. He typed something on his computer and looked alarmed.
“The flight’s closed,” he said. What!?! Thankfully the uniformed Valkyrie took over, may the Norse Gods bless her, called the gate and had the flight reopened.
“Check your bags then run, don’t walk, to the gate,” she said with the slightest smile.
I had visions of the plane about to leave and the airbridge being put back in place to let me on. When I got to the gate, having pushed my way through security issuing more pardons than Donald Trump in panic mode, I discovered the plane supposed to fly us out had only just arrived, due to the same delays that had affected me in the first place.
A brief word about Icelandair Saga class. Firstly, it has nothing to do with the British pensioners’ travel company. Think Saga as in Scandinavian folk tales, rather than busloads of oldies being ferried from one comfort stop to the next.
The first thing that strikes you is that the seating is weird. I have never seen two-one-two on another airline anywhere. That central spine of seats was way too exposed for me, despite it eliminating any chance of being squished by a walking cheeseburger.
I took a window seat instead and settled in for Saga service, which was impeccable. The steward even made up a vegetarian platter because they’d run out of fish.
The brief stopover in Keflavik, (the international airport for Rekjavik) was a breeze. I scored a litre of Icelandic gin (very aromatic) and several varieties of very edible chocolate. The flight from JFK had taken a little over six hours and the onward hop to Glasgow took less than three.
The next two weeks were taken up with family, my Mum’s birthday which she was up and around to celebrate, and the aforementioned hike up the Great Glen from Fort William to Inverness. The train north from Glasgow to Fort William was cancelled due to industrial action, of course, but we were rescued by my niece and her husband driving us there.
The train from Inverness was also cancelled – welcome to Boris’s post-Brexit Britain – but we booked ahead on a very comfortable bus ride south.
Back in Glasgow, I realised I had accumulated various bits of clothing that I hadn’t thought to pack, like a winter rain and fleece combo – hey, it was June but it was Scotland, okay? – plus Ange Postecoglou jumpers from the Celtic FC Superstore.
Realising I was going to either have to dump some gear or pony up for an extra bag on the flight to London, I found that for just a few quid more, I could upgrade to Euro Club. What a boon that turned out to be.
I not only did I get my extra bag on board, I skipped the long check-in and security lines at the Airport. Then I discovered there were endless queues for every café and fast food outlet, snaking around the departure lounges, and occasionally crossing each other and blending together dangerously.
Nobody who’s hanging out for a Macca’s wants to discover too late that they are in line for the posh sit-down bistro.
But wait a minute, doesn’t Club Euro give me access to the BA Lounge? Whoo-Hoo. Next thing I was eating hot soup and warm bread rolls, drinking fresh coffee.
And it got better on the plane. A locked-in tray blocked off the centre seats and I even got a Devonshire cream tea, a smoked salmon roll and a slice of brie as part of my in-flight refreshment. Bliss.
At last, I could relax. A dear friend I hadn’t seen for years and who now lives in London, will be waiting at Heathrow to share a glass of wine and a bite to eat and help me while away some of my four-hour lay-over.
All I had to do was collect my bags and check them in again (that different booking code thing again) then I’d be able to relax and catch up with her. Chance would be a fine thing.
Ninety minutes after landing, with two-thirds of the Glasgow flight’s bags having gone walkabout in Heathrow Terminal Five, Jenny gave up and went home. The bags turned up just a minute or two too late, but at least I could check in and relax.
I lied about my booking status to skip a mile-long queue at security and settle down for an overpriced beer and snack. Then I realised my boarding gate was yet another shuttle train ride away and the departures board was saying “Go To Gate”. Ooops!
Needless to say, I got there in plenty of time, if only because the plane had also been delayed. Once in the air, traditional Bloody Mary in hand, I thought all I had to do was sit still and 22 hours later I would have completed my round-the-world travel, relatively unscathed.
Back home, despite all the near-misses, cancelled trains, missing bags and bungled bookings, I felt nothing could now go wrong. Just one more post-flight RAT to perform and my journey was over.
Then, just as I felt the first tell-tale tickle at the back of my throat, the second red line appeared on the test stick. D’oh!