Who doesn't like airport surprises?!
If you've been keeping up with our blogs you'll know that we've had some interesting border crossings by land. We've had memorable moments crossing from Cambodia into Thailand and Nepal into India. However, aside from needing a last minute visa to enter Australia from New Zealand, we've rarely had an issue at an airport... until departing Dubai, UAE for Amman, Jordan.
Let me set the stage first.
We had to get to Athens, Greece from Dubai. This would require three flights; the last two were acquired using our Aeroplan points. The trip would take roughly 26 hours with a huge 13.5 hour layover in Cairo.
We were on our way to meet my mother in Athens, so it was important to make our itinerary. Our ultimate destination was the Greek Islands. We had hotels and ferries already booked and paid for so keeping to the schedule was critical.
We've travelled on 34 flights already (as of our Athens arrival). The main 'around-the-world' package that we purchased through One World Alliance required original paper tickets. We have been carrying around 10 booklets of paper tickets the entire trip - totaling 20 flight segments per person. Aside from the earlier flight segments in South America, each paper ticket reads "OPEN" under the date column. The ticket, or 'coupon', is later attached to our bordering pass once we arrive at the airport check-in counter.
The way it works is that we make a reservation for each flight but we can change these reservations at any time, provided there is availability, for no extra charge. This is a great feature because our plans and schedules always seem to be evolving and shifting. When we were in Buenos Aires, Argentina we had a bit of a scare because an American Airlines agent said that all of our reservations had been cancelled. They weren't. But the system that she was looking at said otherwise.
You have to imagine a global airline alliance with many different booking systems around the world. Problems and miscommunication will happen. We wanted to have a basic pre-determined plan, so while in Uruguay seven months ago we booked seven months in advance and have since made numerous flight changes.
While in northern Vietnam, about three months ago, we made a few reservation adjustments. We planned to eliminate our Hong Kong visit (we had already been to HK twice before), instead connecting from Thailand to Nepal via HK. This was our last communication with One World. We were sent our updated reservation via email and printed it for our records.
Since then, we completed the flights and everything was as it should be. We then flew from Mumbai to Dubai - still no problems. All flights were correct and there was no reason to assume otherwise. But you know what they say about assuming…
You're now up to speed.
Our first flight for the day was Dubai to Amman. We approached the check-in counter about 3 hours early. We were using Royals Jordanian Airlines for the short flight over the Gulf. We handed over our passports and Nicole kindly asked the agent if it was possible to "check our bags all the way to Athens". We knew this was a tall order because we were using different airlines on different alliances; the connecting flight was with Egypt Air.
Then came the BOOM!
"I'm sorry Madam, we do not have you booked on this flight", the Royal Jordanian agent said to us with a confused look on her face.
"WHAT?!" was our frantic response. "We HAVE to be on this flight?" I said with slight panic in my voice.
She tapped on her keyboard and shook her head. "I'm sorry sir; this flight is completely sold out. In fact, it's currently overbooked". She was puzzled. We were puzzled. Nicole's eyes filled with tears.
How could this happen? And of all the times for a flight mix-up!
Panic and frustration kicked in. We immediately went into damage control. What comes first? Who do we call? If we miss our flight from Amman to Cairo then the entire roundtrip flight would automatically cancel, and we would likely lose our points. The situation was not looking good.
The reason we purchased the flights using points was because it was not cheap to fly from Dubai to Athens, somewhere in the range of $400-500 per person. Our tight budget could not handle a crippling loss of $1,000 shortly after learning that our tenants broke our lease three months early. We were feeling tense and fragile.
The floor manager took our information and disappeared. He came back ten minutes later and showed us what happened. Apparently Royal Jordanian Airlines automatically cancelled our reservation about two months ago. We were still in the system but we did not have an official flight booked.
Nicole showed him our printed itinerary, "But we have a printed reservation right here?!"
"That is not a reservation" was his response. "That is just an itinerary. Our system does not have you reserved for this flight". We had visions of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry is trying to pick up his rental car reservation.
It didn't make sense. How were we supposed to know that a change had been made if nobody contacted us? We had paper tickets so the only updated information we had were these email itineraries/reservations.
He was empathetic, but firm. It wasn't his fault, but that didn't matter to us.
So there it is. Our first flight of three and we didn't have confirmed seats. Of coursse this happens at a time when we can't be flexible. There were no more flights out that day and it was overbooked. Checkmate!
But we still had hope. We sat and waited. The manager was calm, he told us not to move. "Stay where I can see you" he said. The check-in counter closed one hour before departure, he would know more at that time. We had still had two hours to go and were already anxious and restless.
It was the longest two hours of our trip. All we could do was think about how to fix this mess and get to Amman before 7:00 pm for our connection to Cairo. We were hungry and still hadn't had our morning coffee, but there were no restaurants or cafés nearby. We were frustrated but didn't know who to blame. Of all the times to 'assume' that everything was in order!
Then the manager approached us right as the check-in counter closed. He was stone faced. We couldn't get a proper read. Good news or bad news? He waved at us with the 'come-over-here' signal. "Okay - we found two seats!" he said with a big smile.
We were on the flight… disaster averted!
We could breathe again. He then handed us a complimentary pass to the executive first class lounge, knowing we hadn't eaten. Although we only had 20 minutes before boarding we managed to squeeze in a café latte before attacking the fresh sandwich and salad buffet. Royal Jordanian came through in a big way. Well, at least its absent passengers did.
Hang on… we weren't in Athens yet.
Fortunately we were assigned seats beside one another. We felt exhausted already and it was only 11:00am. The flight took off slightly behind schedule. Once in the air, the personal entertainment systems were activated for passenger usage… all passengers except me!
The flight attendants solution was to hand me a complaints card, not the answer I was looking for. I wanted to be upset, but the journey wasn't very long and we were just grateful to be on the flight (isn't it interesting how our perceptions change with a little drama!).
The man sitting besde me was an Arabic man wearing traditional UAE garb. He offered me his seat because his entertainment worked fine and he had little interest in it. It was a very kind offer that I took him up on - I was pretty keen to watch the new Terminator 4 movie.
I thanked him and said "today has been a bad day for me". He smiled peacefully and contradicted me, "Yes. Today is a good day for you". It was an odd response but he spoke in broken English so I thought nothing more to it. I remember thinking that he was a wise man with a strong spiritual side. Maybe he was right?
We landed in Jordan and had our bags transferred. Our six hour layover passed by slowly. Amman's International Airport was small and claustrophobic. We couldn't help but think about the dreadful 13.5 hour layover in Cairo's international airport. Did they at least have benches that we could stretch out on for some sleep?
Thankfully the Egypt Air flight from Amman to Cairo was short. The boarding process was chaotic and disorganized. It was a free-for-all with people literally pushing their way through the security metal detector. The X-ray machine's short conveyor belt spit bags on the floor. I'm not even sure if someone was actually watching the items pass the screen. It was comical comparing the process to the stringent USA airport security.
The plane was very old without any entertainment, but a small meal was served. It was coincidentally the last day of Ramadan so many of the men on the plane were loud and cheerful. There was a traditionally dressed Muslim man sitting beside me on the aisle seat (Nicole needs the window so I am often delegated to the dreaded middle seat).
The continued to chant and pray throughout the flight in a paranoid manner. As he rocked back and forth and wiped his face I couldn't help but notice that he reeked of urine and bad breath. You can imagine what we were thinking. It was an unpleasant flight but we finally arrived in Cairo.
As we passed through the 'connections and transfers' gate we asked an Egypt Air employee if there was a place to sleep or relax. We also wanted to know if there was a hotel in the airport; if the price was right we would consider it. He didn't really understand the question and mentioned something about getting a temporary visa to enter Egypt or picking up a voucher. We did not intend to leave the airport and were confused by his long-winded answer, but the word 'voucher' had us intrigued.
Acting like we knew what was going on, we asked him "where do we get our voucher?"
The young man pointed down the hallway to an Egypt Air counter that we had already passed. We thanked him and backtracked to the counter. We played it cool and asked leading questions. Information was critical.
"We're here to pick up our vouchers" I confidently said to the agent.
The friendly agent replied, "Okay. I'll need your passports and connecting boarding pass."
"Why do you need our passports?" I said, very protective of our travel documents. Apparently we were getting a temporary visa to enter Cairo.
We continued to play it cool. "Why do we need a temporary visa?" I asked cautiously.
We were getting a free night's accommodation at a hotel, courtesy of Egypt Air!
I gather it's because we had an overnight layover with connecting flights on the same airline. We rarely leave an airport when we have a long layover, mainly because we try to save the expense. But this hotel stay was complimentary, so we were all over it. We bypassed immigration and were whisked off to a shuttle van that transported us about 20 minutes away.
Nicole looked at the voucher and asked "what do you think this means?" There were check marks beside the dinner and breakfast boxes on the voucher. Surely we weren't also getting meals included?
We pulled up to the hotel and our jaws dropped. We were at the Meridian, a four star hotel with a massive, luxurious foyer. It was not the budget airport motel we were expecting. In fact, it was the complete opposite… and yes, all food was included. It was one of the nicest hotels we've stayed at. We couldn't believe it!
The hotel was fantastic. The bed and oversized pillows were so comfortable and inviting after an exhausting day of travel. After filling up at the delicious dinner buffet, we ran a hot bath before catching up on some BBC World News.
And to think… only a few moments earlier we had committed to sleeping on the cold floor of the international airport. It was an excellent turn of events!
We must have some good karma because we've never received free accommodations from an airline. How could a day that started so poorly end so great?
The wise Arabic man that sat beside us was right, "today was a good day for us"!
September 20, 2009