Monday, April 14, 2008

Worst travel experience ever

Friday I was suppose to go to Montreal, the usual route over London Heathrow. Slightly concerned with the recent mishaps of the new Terminal 5, I actually managed to get to the good old Terminal 4 without much trouble. Little did I know, my trouble were just about to start.

Canceled flight
Yup, just 1 min. after entering Terminal 4 I learned that BA95 to Montreal was canceled. Inquiring at the help desk I experienced the deja-vu of being told that I had to go fetch my luggage, contact the ticket office and expect a layover. I had experienced another layover about 2 years ago so I pretty much knew what has coming... or so I though anyway.

Heathrow, JFK or Newark
My luggage was nowhere to be found, so I proceeded to the ticket counter and when it was my time to be served I was presented with the option og taking the same flight tomorrow, go to JFK in New York and a very short layover involving an early flight or go to Newark in New York and a longer layover involving a later flight. I thought the Heathrow option would take too long (tried that before btw.), that the JFK option would be too hectic so I opted for going to Newark. With a couple of new tickets in my hand, I rushed to check in and to my gate and soon was on the way across the Atlantic - towards Newark.

The American greeting
After setting the right check marks documenting that I am not a terrorist, have never been deported from the US and a bunch of equally ridiculous questions I landed around 22:30 and was provided a few notes by ground personnel. One note said my luggage had not made it there and another provided me with a hotel voucher for "Newark Airport Hotel". This was expected, so I began to make my way out of the airport. The initial customs check went fine, they just wanted the usual prints and photo. However, prior to exiting the secure area there was another individual collecting customs cards. The guy took a quick look at mine and asked where my luggage was. I replied that I was in transit so the backpack was all I had. As if he didn't hear me, he asked the same a second time only more aggravated. I then tried explaining that my original flight had been canceled so my luggage was somewhere between London and Montreal. That seems to have made him even more mad, and now raised his voice considerably and said that he had been working there for 13 years and bla... blah. I did not know quite how to react, but realized that I was now in the country where I could be held back, tasered etc. without that being particularly unusual. So I tried once again to explain myself. He must have gotten tired of me, because he then waved me off and I could walk in to the land of the free with a sigh of relief.

A ghost airport
I now just wanted to find my hotel so I could grab as much sleep as possible before the next morning. But that proved to be quite difficult. It was apparently too late in the evening for any information people to be working, so all I could find were the occasional passenger like myself, janitor/cleaning personnel and suspicious looking people.
Newark airport is a bit like a maze. Rather than having a large open space where you can get an overview from a far and navigate your way like London or Amsterdam, Newark consists 5-6 split-levels which reminded me of a mall more than of an airport. It took me 30 min of walking around to realize that I was not going to find anyone who knew about "Newark Airport Hotel" or signs to help me. Eventually, I was able to find the British Airways check in counter located at the lower level (basement) but it was as abandoned as everything else. Not far from the counter however, a woman was located behind a counter so I decided to ask her. She kept asking "which one?" when I mentioned "Newark Airport Hotel". So I tried showing her my voucher which didn't really say anything else, but she either refused or just couldn't see it. I asked what I was to do, as a passenger in an airport which for all practical purposes was sleeping. She then got very defensive and said she couldn't help me if I was going to be like that. I might have sound frustrated, but I don't know what else could be expected of me... in any event, I apologized and asked her again, this time putting extra effort into not sounding tired or irritated.
She advised me to contact British Airways. I told her I had failed at locating anyone else than her, let alone British Airways staff. She pointed to a woman behind the BA counter and said "There's one right there". I told her that was a cleaning lady, which made her stand up and yell "Are you cleaning?" to which a mute "Yes" was returned. She then told me she saw BA personnel enter the door in the back so advised me to go knock. Knocking and a brief conversation earned me a photocopy of a poster for "Newark Airport Hotel" with a picture and address, but most importantly of all, the tip that all hotel shuttle buses leave from parking area P4.

Newark Airport Hotels

A quick train ride later I arrived at P4 and started investigating which shuttle bus I needed. There were a bunch of buses arriving and leaving constantly, and a list of about 20 hotels in the vicinity. It quickly became clear to me, that the vast majority of the hotels referred to themselves as Newark Airport Hotel. When a shuttle bus arrived 15 min later, saying Newark Airport Hotel in capital and Sheraton after, I thought that might be it. I showed the driver the picture of the hotel I had and asked if this was the hotel he was going to, but there was no answer. So instead I asked, is this the Sheraton hotel? He answered yes so I quickly got in. As soon as we were on our way, I realized he COULD have misunderstood me as asking if he goes to the Sheraton hotel. It later became clear that indeed it was not the Newark Airport Hotel I was looking for. I asked if they recognized the hotel in the picture, and they thought it looked like the Renaissance. So I went out in front again and started waiting in front of the two mini-buses parked with the engines running. After about 15 min. a guy came and asked if I was waiting for the bus. He agreed to take me back to P4. I was back at P4 around 00:30 and started investigating hotels again, this time I noticed a picture of the Renaissance and made a call for a shuttle. It arrived about 10 min. later and I finally thought a comfortable bed was within reach. When I arrived and was told by the lady at the front desk that everything was sold out, I did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Classic yellow cab

The lady informed me that no hotel in the vicinity had any available rooms, but that she could call their sister hotel in Springfield about 20 min. away, only, I had to pay cash because they did not accept my voucher. I was drop dead tired, with no intention to spend the night in the insecure part of the ghostly Newark Airport so I accepted her proposal and thought I would simply have to try and get British Airways to give me a refund later. The lady was nice, clearly felt bad for me because she gave me an apple and a soft drink while I waited for the cab.
The cab arrived and I got in on the backseat as I've seen is the custom in the US. And sure enough, a thick Plexiglas window separated me and the driver. It started pouring down and we slowly made out way... somewhere unknown. I could hear the cab radio, in typical big city jargon, talking about whether the police had arrived yet. After about 20 min. I started getting worried, I really did not want to get too far from the airport, also knowing there would be a bill to pay. But we soon arrived so I fetched my Visa card and gave it to the driver through the little door in the protective glass. But his card sweeper didn't work, after many attempts on both my Visa and MasterCard he gave up and called his boss. They were annoyed at each other, obviously not agreeing on whether it was the card or the machine that didn't work. Eventually he handed the cellphone to me and I provided his boss with my Visa detail and that was the end of that - 55$ but no receit.

Springfield Holiday Inn
Not exactly the Hilton, but after paying 144$ I was just glad to have a bed within reach. I slept about 4 hours that night and got up around 6 such as to try and make my way back to the airport and resolve the various issues that had piled up. I got the hotel to call me a cab and not long after a large black car pulled up. Apparently that was the taxi, I couldn't help wonder whether it was a limo service or perhaps a pirate-cab but I went along. Unlike the night before, this chap was very chatty. The driver was originally from Egypt and as soon as he learned I was from Denmark he wanted to discuss the Muhammad drawings. Not knowing where exactly he was taking me, and wanting to remain on friendly terms, I adopted an unusually confrontationless style of argumentation trying to convince him that Danes do not intentionally want to mock or make fun but that religion isn't really particular important to us and that Denmark is a little isolated/ignorant up there in the north. I certainly was not going to say that by all accounts, Muhammad would qualify as being called a pedophile and that the current problems comes from the more moderate Muslims not taking a stand against the primitive head-chopping
Shari Muslims.
On the way I noticed the guy had no taximeter and when he said he couldn't take credit cards I got convinced he was a pirate-taxi. I proposed that we go find an ATM right inside the airport but he refused, claiming he could not park there. So we went to the Hilton hotel which was close by, he asked how much I had payed the night before. I quickly realized he was going to use that as a benchmark to charge me, so instead of 55$ I said 45$. And sure enough, he required 60$. Had I said 55 he would probably have said 70$.

Bye bye US
I went to the British Airways check in counter from last night and get a hold of someone, explaining my situation and that I would like to have a refund. They were very understanding, almost puttied me, but were confused as to how to resolve the matter. So we agreed it would probably be best if I pursued it at my end destination Montreal. I quickly made my way to Terminal A and within long was on the way to Montreal. When I arrived in Montreal, my luggage was not there (really, I was not expecting that after all that happened) so I tried to find British Airways missing luggage personnel... with no success. I went to the Air Canada counter instead, since my last flight was actually operated by Air Canada. And sure enough, the guy there informed me that my luggage had just left London on the way to Montreal. I've had delayed suitcases many times before so that didn't really concern me much, I filled out a report and hurried out. Then I tried locating British Airways personnel at a ticket office or checking counter, to try and make my case of getting a refund. The time now was around 13:00 and at the counter all I saw was a sign with the opening hours saying they open at 16:30. Not wanting to wait 3½ hour just to complain, I left and planned on making my case another way. I received my luggage the day after.

The moral of the story
I am sure this will be yet another laughable experience eventually, but for now it is still a little too close for comfort. I have definitely had enough of American "hospitality" as well as London's Heathrow airport. I am now more sure than ever that it's worth it paying more for a ticket going with KLM (my preferred airline).

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