Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sixty Hours In Strange Places - Tips From A Tired Traveller

New Orleans to Bangalore was not a straightforward connection, especially as our departure date was unchangeable due to commitments in both places.  We were also reluctant to take early morning flights because the following international connections were only in the evening.  Therefore we chose a set of flights that I would advise people to avoid if possible - two different airline carriers (United and Lufthansa in this case) though they were part of an alliance.  By and large the Lufthansa end of things worked, but dealing with United was a complete disaster.  Flights are unpleasant (extremely rude staff, bad food) but that one can tolerate.  What is harder to put up with is United's consistent mishandling of  our luggage, both on the incoming and outgoing flights.

As I write this, I sit at home and wait for the baggage staff to call me (and they don't).  A sense of deja vu pervades.  I have spent the whole day sleeping off my weird sixty hour trip and this is what I have learned:

Always keep a toothbrush, small bottle of moisturizing lotion and an extra set of underwear in your hand baggage.  A packet of flushable, anti-bacterial toilet seat wipes, a small tube of antiseptic cream, a pack of emergency medication (for pain, allergies etc.).  A small bag of dry fruit or chocolate or anything else to get some quick calories.  If you don't mind carrying another small bag, do so even if the airline discourages it- if the flight is full, it will be checked in at the gate (a set of night clothes, socks, slippers, hairbrush and a fresh T shirt work wonders if you are stuck and there often isn't enough space in a small handbag to fit in all this).  A little extra money is always reassuring (a credit card is the best because you don't have to worry about currency conversion).

Wear sweaters rather than jackets because jackets have to be removed while going through security.  Leave enough space in the front pocket of your bag empty to slip your passport, ticket and wallet in each time you go through security.  And don't be self conscious about security checks or take them personally, everyone goes through the same irritating experience sometime or the other.  When things are annoying beyond control, I find it helpful to smile at the person who is being particularly obnoxious and curse them aloud in Hindi (any unusual language of your choice will do).  There may be other people around who know the language, but they never rat on you!  This is a win-win situation as it releases stress without causing a situation where the airport staff feel compelled to retaliate verbally.

For connecting flights, it helps if you have a visa for the stopover though this is not always possible to manage.  If you miss a flight and are put on another one, make sure you have enough time (about 1 hour if you have been checked in because it takes time to reach the gates and go through security and lines are unpredictable).  Make sure that you have something in writing (a print out is better) though this is not something the staff will easily oblige you with.  This is important though because there is often a lack of communication between the computers of different airlines and without a confirmation number, you may find that you are unable to take the assigned flight.  If you are not madly dashing to the gate in question, insist on a print out of your ticket and on getting a calling card (make sure you can use it to make a reasonable call to your home country- often these cards can only be used through special airport phones, so make sure you know where to call from).  If you have a long wait, do ask the airline people to check for other possible connections and make sure you are booked to your final destination (the staff are often lazy, incompetent and/or evasive so assume the worst and check every sector of your travel).  At each place, if possible, check that your bags are being loaded on to the aircraft by asking the staff at the gate.

What happened to us was strange but not unusual - we saw many passengers to India who were stranded or redirected.  It was a combination of scenes from the movies 'The Terminal' and 'Meet the Parents' that came to mind.  It is hard initially but it is amazing how the body and mind adapt to changing situations and how quickly one gets used to life inside airports and airplanes (this is meant to be reassuring, not disturbing)!  Do eat the last meal offered even if you are not very hungry as you don't know what lies ahead at the airport.  Keep a small bag in the front pocket of your seat and slip in  the (generally not very tasty) bread roll or muffin because often if you are stuck, even if you want to buy food, you don't get the time to.

We left New Orleans at 9.30 in the morning and reached Newark by afternoon, only to discover that our evening connection to Frankfurt was delayed.  The United staff told us not to worry, time would be made up etc.  Of course, none of this was true, in fact the staff did nothing to facilitate the speedy exit of passengers even after the flight had landed (all four buses were waiting until all passengers including those using wheelchairs had got on and obviously there was a mad scramble when we reached the airport entrance).  There was only one ground staff member present who was completely confused and told us to go  to gate C16 to get another flight immediately.  As it turned out our original flight was ten minutes delayed and we may just have made it if the staff were communicating with the gate.  But would United and Lufthansa communicate with each other?  Out of the question.  So we ran all the way, went through security only to be told that our names were not on the list and we should go back to the transfer desk.  There was a queue at the transfer desk, only one official at the desk and the family ahead of us took an hour to get their tickets sorted out.  We had already  missed our second connection.  We were then put on a third flight, fortunately we asked the lady to write down the gate and flight details to be sure.  We ran back to the gate (passed security with a physical check for both of us this time- each time you pass through security, the result is different even if your accessories are identical - I think the system is faulty by accident or design).  This time we reached the gate, only to be told that our names were not on the list and in the absence of a print out, the check in could not be done.  I dug in my heels and told them that they should call the United staff, we had not enough time to run back to the desk and return.  But United and Emirates are not really on talking terms.  No one answered the phone , no one called back.  The Emirates people cursed the United staff and sent us away as the flight was leaving.

Back to the counter and we were given the option of taking another flight to Pune which left in an hour's time.  Once more I dug in my heels and refused.  This was the last flight for the day (and it involved a twelve hour wait in Dubai and an early morning connection from Pune to Bangalore).  We had Schengen visas and we would stay the night in a Frankfurt hotel.  Easier said than done.  By a stroke of luck (or the laws of probability) we got a particularly good  man at the transfer counter.  He immediately issued hotel and food vouchers and then his shift was over.

We went to the ticketing section, to be greeted by an aggressive, irate woman, who eventually cooled down (this happens sometimes if one doesn't lose patience with the staff but obstinately keeps explaining one's point of view).  Finally we were routed to Bangalore via - London (possible only because we had a US visa)!  She gave us a printout but later we realized that it contained no information - no booking number or ticket number, just the flight numbers.  In order to check in one needs a booking number or reference number.  Back to the ticket counter.  The man who had issued our hotel vouchers was now doing the ticketing and we managed to get boarding passes and baggage tags for our first flight.  They couldn't do the second - United to Lufthansa to British Airways was just too much cross talk for them!  We used the computers in the arrival/departure hall to check into our Heathrow-Bangalore flight and when we reached the hotel, managed to print out our tickets.  Online check-ins save on time and effort at airports and decrease your dependence on the vagaries of the staff who are "assisting" you.

We did make the flights, though at Frankfurt my bag was taken from me at the gate as it was "too big" (it was in fact a standard carry-on size and many other people with similar or larger bags were allowed to take them into the flight so this was another of those airline whims that had to be indulged).  However, I realized, soon after, that I had no British visa and would not be able to collect my bag in London.  So, it was a mad dash back to the gate and eventually the obstinate lady, after refusing to return my bag, checked it in all the way to Bangalore.  This was all right by me as I had all my essentials in a small backpack.  The rest of the procedure worked out except that I am still awaiting one bag of wedding finery.

The up side of this was that we had an excellent dinner and breakfast in Frankfurt (I do like German food, whatever little I have tasted - unusual, dark breads with lots of seeds, tender veal and lean pork, white asparagus and dark, flavourful cherries, mountains of delicious whipped cream, hazelnuts and chocolate).  We also managed to catch up on shopping that we had no time for in the US.  German chocolate, marzipan, salami, British cheese, music.  The only thing left on my list was olives but I suppressed the thought of this - in fear that we would be rerouted to Italy or Greece next!  It is important to be choosy about one's wishes.  

1 comment:

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