Plane Sailing

Dennis Friedman

MY WIFE KEEPS COMING up with ideas for where we should travel next. She says, “How about New Orleans, Savannah or Charleston?” My wife can’t get enough of traveling. I’d rather hang around the house for a while.

This year, we experienced long flight delays on our last two trips back from Europe, so right now I’m not anxious to get on another plane. The most recent headache was our flight home from Ireland.

The plane was delayed four hours leaving Dublin. Our late arrival into Chicago caused us to miss our 4:30 p.m. connecting flight. When our alternate flight was canceled at 10:30 p.m., we were forced to spend the night at O’Hare International Airport. We called a number of hotels, but we weren’t able to get a room for the night.

As we walked around the airport to look for a place to sleep, I saw an older man sleeping on a bench. His wife was sitting on her knees watching over him. I felt sorry for them, and then realized that my wife and I were in the same situation.

My wife said, “I feel homeless.” I told her, “We are tonight.”

Rachel tried sleeping on the floor, while I sat next to her, keeping an eye on our personal belongings. In the end, it turned out to be 36 hours from the time we left our Dublin hotel until we finally made it home to California. I consider us fortunate that it wasn’t longer.

Here are four suggestions that can help reduce the stress and turmoil of flying:

1. Use the airline’s app when help is needed. When our flight was canceled, we were told to go to the United Airlines customer service desk for assistance. Since there were so many flights canceled because of bad weather and personnel shortages, there were hundreds of people in line. It could have taken at least three hours to reach the front of the line.

Instead, my wife tried calling United, and I tried messaging the airline using the app. After about 45 minutes, I was able to contact a customer service representative who told us there were no available flights tomorrow. They were all fully booked. We would have to wait until the following day, Thursday, to get a flight home.

I’ve found that using an airline’s app is often the fastest way to get assistance. The app also makes it easier to check in for your flight, get your boarding passes and book flights. That night in Chicago, it saved us from waiting in line for hours.

2. If your flight is canceled, try flying standby. We couldn’t sleep, so we decided to look for a place where we could get some coffee and a bite to eat. It was 5 a.m. and McDonald’s was the only restaurant open at the airport. While waiting in line, Rachel said, “Why don’t we see if there are any flights to Orange County this morning? If so, we can get our names added to the standby list.”

My wife is the glass-half-full person in our relationship. I’m more of a glass-half-empty guy. I said, “After seeing all those flights canceled last night, that standby list is probably a mile long. Not to mention, all the flights are fully booked.” She said, “What do we have to lose?”

We found two flights scheduled for Orange County. One left at 7:15 a.m. We got to the gate early to get our names added to the standby list. There were other names already on the list. But since we were paying customers, we were ahead of any non-revenue-generating customers, such as United employees.

As the passengers boarded the plane, we looked around our gate to get some idea for how many folks were on the standby list. Not counting us, maybe seven people. But we still didn’t know if there were any empty seats. Then the employees at the counter started calling out two passengers’ names, warning them that the gate was closing and it was their last chance to board.

I told my wife it feels like we’re on a game show vying for a prize. A few minutes later, they called our names. I couldn’t believe we were at the top of the standby list, and we each got a seat. We were finally going home.

But it was too good to be true. As we waited for our boarding passes to be printed, I saw a man heading toward our gate. Now, there was only one seat available. They offered it to us. But we wanted to stay together, and try the flight scheduled for 8:40 a.m.

The next flight didn’t look promising. United announced the plane was at capacity and some of the passengers’ carry-on bags would have to be checked in. On top of that, we weren’t the only names on the standby list. I noticed four familiar faces who had also, like us, tried to get on the 7:15 a.m. flight.

But to our surprise, there were eight no-shows for the 8:40 a.m. flight. We were among the eight lucky ones on the standby list who got seats. We were indeed finally going home.

3. Travel light. When traveling, especially overseas, we usually only have a single bag each, which we carry on rather than checking in. It’s much easier to take a train or bus if you only have one bag. Also, you don’t have to spend extra time checking in your bags or picking them up from the luggage carousel. You can walk off the plane and be on your way.

When we were stuck in Chicago, it was comforting to know we didn’t have to fret about our luggage getting lost or damaged. We had all our stuff with us all the time.

4. Avoid boarding the plane late. To make sure our carry-on bags are with us at all times, we pay extra to board early to ensure there’s room in the plane’s overhead compartment. When you travel economy, like we do, you’re among the last ones to board. There’s always the risk your bag might have to be checked in.

A few weeks after we returned home, we received an email from United Airlines notifying us that we would each be receiving 30,000 frequent-flier miles, plus a $100 coupon for our troubles. It was a nice gesture. But I’d still rather have slept in my bed than spent the night at an airport.

Dennis Friedman retired from Boeing Satellite Systems after a 30-year career in manufacturing. Born in Ohio, Dennis is a California transplant with a bachelor’s degree in history and an MBA. A self-described “humble investor,” he likes reading historical novels and about personal finance. Check out his earlier articles and follow him on Twitter @DMFrie.

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