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Sometimes things don’t go the way you hope when you travel. Forgotten items, long lines, you name it. But the one thing we all fear as travelers: what happens if I miss my connecting plane? Will I end up like Tom Hanks in that movie where he lives in an airport forever? It happened to me today. So let’s talk about it.

A Minor Inconvenience

I did something dumb. I booked a ticket to Venice, connecting through Amsterdam. It had a 50 minute connection and I am on a tight schedule, needed to be at my destination with time to spare. I have flown through Amsterdam six, count ’em, six times THIS YEAR, and all with short connections in the hour range and never a problem. I figured this one would be fine.

My Seattle flight left late, but they promised us they would make up for the time in the air, which they usually do. Not this time. Plus, we got held up over Amsterdam due to fog. By the time we landed and the doors opened, my next flight was 25 minutes from departure, and my heart was pounding.

I politely pushed past other travelers, letting people know my dilemma. Most people are super kind when you let them know the hurry you’re in. I dashed across the airport, and again vocalizing my rush, was allowed to go quickly through passport control. Running endlessly with all of my stuff, I finally got to the gate and the plane was still there…but the door was closed and no matter how much sweetness or cajoling I tried, they were not opening it for me. GRRRRRRRR.

My heart pounding from the run, I asked the gate agent what to do next. She shrugged. “Guess you’ll have to take the next one. But you should probably also breathe first.” Uuuhhh. And?

At this point, I had some options. I could call Delta and ask them to rearrange things, or I could go find a KLM (the partner airline) desk to help me, or I could try the automated kiosks in the hallways. I was tempted to call Delta, as they issued the ticket, but I asked a few airport staff members what they suggested and they told me to go to the Transfer Desk. AH! So THAT’S what that desk is for!

The Transfer Desk had a small line, and when it was my turn, the agent said flatly, “Oh, you’ve already been rebooked.” Huh. Would have been nice to get a message about that. She eventually found my flight and printed my boarding pass. The big bonus in talking to someone in person–she gave me a food voucher for €10. That’s a nice perk I didn’t expect.

This was a small inconvenience. I’ll get where I need to go, a bit late but I’ll survive. It’s just an example of how it works when you miss a flight. They will fix it. You’ll be ok and get where you’re going. Eventually.

It Could Be Worse

I have a slightly less happy story to share, though. A few years back, I was flying home after a long season, Rome to Seattle on British Airways. I was tired and my kids were dying to see me. The Rome flight sat on the tarmac forever, and left really late.

Once in London, the plane to Seattle was still there when we landed. Whew! There were at least 20 people from my flight going to Seattle, but……they wouldn’t hold it. It took off, apparently less than half full from the looks of the mob of angry Seattleites milling around Heathrow.

I dutifully went to the transfer desk and found a line of more than 2000 people, all furious about missing connections. I called the travel agent I bought the ticket from and she tried to rebook it, but told me I still needed to wait in the line and confirm my new booking with an agent. With my dying cell phone, I called home to share the sad news I wasn’t coming home just yet.

I waited in that line for more than 8 hours. People took turns going to the toilet and bumming snacks off of each other. At 10pm, the British Airways desk was closing for the night. Over that long wait, I had bonded with my fellow travelers and we were all fit to be tied. Sending us away after waiting all that time??

Someone (and I wish it had been me) came up with a great idea. What about calling American Airlines? They are a partner, maybe they could help. And indeed, this magical person in line called up American, rebooked their ticket in a flash and had just enough battery power left for me to do the same. Had we thought of it earlier, we could have flown that day.

The British ticket line descended into chaos. I knew that they owed me a hotel room and food, so I looked around for the person handing out vouchers. I snapped up mine and sprinted to the bus, hoping to get a room before the mob figured the system out. And that was the sad part, British didn’t announce the vouchers, didn’t show people how to use them. People wandered aimlessly around the transit desk. I wondered about the people from far away places that didn’t speak English.

The hotel they put me in was plush, a Hilton or something, and I had a nice meal at their expensive restaurant. But I couldn’t enjoy it. I missed my babies and home, and I was so pissed that British didn’t seem to care, or attempt to help the thousands of stranded passengers. I made it home on American the next day, skip-hopping across the US on any available flight towards Seattle. What a nightmare. But I made it. Eventually.

Lessons Learned

Everything is a lesson in travel. I took a gamble booking such a tight connection and it didn’t pan out. I stayed calm and figured out the best place to start fixing the problem.

The lessons:

1. Book longer connections, minimum 1 hour.

2. Always be prepared for complications.

3. Keep your phone charged and have a back-up battery.

4. Know who issued your ticket–it may be on KLM but could be a Delta ticket, for example.

5. Be verbal, tell people what you need. The Delta and KLM people were very accommodating and got the issue fixed. Airports are full of people who want to help

.6. Know what you’re owed. Short delays should net you a food voucher. The airline should provide hotel and food if you miss a flight and can’t connect until the next day. Be insistent about this and ask for it if they don’t volunteer it.

Above all, just keep this in mind. In all of my years as a tour guide, every single person that has ever traveled with me has made it to Europe and back home. Eventually. That’s a lot of people! If they can do it, so can you, even if you’re delayed.The most important lesson of this story? Keep Calm, Carry On (and don’t fly British).

AWS Staff

This post was published by the Adventures with Sarah team. Click here to find out more about the people that make everything at AWS happen.

8 Comments

  • Mary says:

    I have sat at Heathrow and longed for my flight to be cancelled so I could spend one more day there. But unfortunately it never happened for me. We have learned the trick of calling rather than standing in line. It has saved us when we had to get home. But I was going to a funeral once and Frontier refused to fly due to wind in Denver. I called my husband and he booked me on Southwest for only an hour later. Yes with two stops along the way, but I got there! Yes, a few hours later with a long drive since the Southwest flight took me three hours from my destination. Sometimes you have to get creative, but I never book an international connection of less than three hours. If we are on time, I buy my way into some lounge, relax and drink wine while I wait. Heathrow BA terminal 5 has no lounge you can get in for love or money. But I know a quiet restaurant where I can pick up the Wi-Fi from the BA longe. I order a glass of wine and an appetizer and make it last until boarding time. And no I’m not telling where or how to get the BA lounge password.

  • Patrice says:

    I was very impressed with your resourcefulness in that tough situation with British Airways! Knowledge is definitely power! I’m interested in what’s in your traveling emergency kit, and what you take with you in your first aid kit. Would you please include these in one of your blogs? Also can you recommend a reputable, cost-efficient travel tour company that takes tours to Costa Rica, and gives me more bang for my buck as the Rick Steve’s tours do? Since you are branching out to South East Asia, would you ever consider Central America? I would love to travel to Italy, but Central America is closer, more affordable, and has flora and fauna I want to explore! Thank you for all the wonderful advice you give in your blogs!

    • jayne a Lindsay says:

      Loved Caravan. Great price…….good bus and driver and good tour leader. All hotels very nice. No flights included.

  • Jackie says:

    Having traveled to Europe and back many times, here is my travel mantra: Any safe trip is a good trip. I have dealt with some frustrations along the way (plane losing an engine and arriving a day late – but alive!). It is part of travel. I try to roll with it. I don’t always understand the language, but I have used Rick Steves’ suggestion more than once – if everyone grabs their luggage and runs, follow them. It makes for good stories when you (finally) get home. It surely is not enough inconvenience to keep me home. However, I think I would have made a written complaint to BA about the long wait and then the employees going home. that you experienced. That is really unacceptable customer service. When our plane lost an engine and there was a long delay, my daughter wrote a very nice letter to Delta complimenting the pilot and staff for keeping us safe and their excellent care for us. Delta sent us vouchers. It was a nice gesture.

  • Clare says:

    I don’t know the rules in Europe, but in the US if the delay is weather related you will not get a hotel or food vouchers. (No matter how nice you are!)

  • Kathleen Callahan says:

    Thanks for this post; now I know what to expect when a delay happens. We just returned from a trip to Germany – flew Iberia and missed our connection in Madrid. Connection time was 95 minutes but we were late arriving. We were told by the flight attendant on our incoming flight that we would be met at the gate and expedited through passport control so we would make connection. Unfortunately that never happened and we missed our flight to Germany. After an unpleasant experience with the transfer desk and one of the worst customer service reps I have ever encountered, we were finally rescheduled for 8 hours later but no offer of a meal voucher. Next time I’ll know enough to ask for one or more if the delay is longer.

  • Robert says:

    Sarah: Have you ever flown British Airways (BA) again? We had a horrible BA customer service experience in Vienna when we were leaving for the States after a 1-year sabbatical stay there in the early 1990s. We had 6 bags to check, 2 for each of us, which at the time were free. Right off the start, when checking in, the BA agent erroneously told us that our infant daughter (6 months old) was not allowed 2 free checked bags, even though we had bought a ticket for her. So, knowing she was wrong, I politely asked to see the supervisor. The supervisor agreed with us and corrected the agent, who was now embarrassed and became vindictive. She took immediate revenge upon us by insisting to weigh our carry-on bags. I say vindictive because I had observed that no other customer in line before us had their carry-on bags weighed, and ours were not bulging to suggest that they might be over weight. (As an aside, in the 25 years since this happened, I have never had my carry-on bags weighed and probably have traveled to Europe at least 25 times.) Well, upon discovering that our carry-on bags were over weight, I am sure that the agent took great glee in watching two exhausted parents shuffling contents from their carry-ons into their checked bags spread out on the airport floor while tending to an infant in the process. Of course, by then, my wife was in tears, and I was tired and angry. I am sure that if we had just acquiesced to the agent’s initial request that we pay for the 2 checked bags that she never would have looked twice at our carry-on bags. Well, we eventually got everything sorted out and boarded our flight and made it home. When we returned to the States, I fired off a 3-page letter to BA complaining about the vindictive and unsympathetic treatment we received. A few weeks later, I received a form letter response with no apologies and no offer of any compensation. We vowed never to fly BA ever again – and haven’t – and won’t.

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