Thursday, September 08, 2011

We're Back, via The Flight from Hell

Yes, it's been a long (if very enjoyable) two weeks on the road in Germany, but we are finally home. The taxi dropped us off in our driveway yesterday at about 6:00 PM (midnight, according to the Central European Time on which our bodies are still operating), ending a day that began at 3:45 that morning. It is now 2:40 on Thursday morning, and I am groggy but unable to sleep, so bear with me if any of what follows is full of typos or nonsense. Or more nonsense than usual ...

We'd left a wake-up call at the hotel for 3:45 yesterday morning to give us time for showers and final packing before our taxi was scheduled to arrive at 5:30. When we went downstairs to the lobby at about 5:00, the desk clerk opened up the breakfast buffet for us a full hour early, and packed us each a nice lunch bag of two sandwiches, a carton of Hi-C fruit drink, and a bunch of grapes! We had a nice breakfast in the dark and totally empty lobby, and the taxi showed up right on time to take us to the train station.

It being 5:30, there was no traffic at all on the roads, and it being a German taxi driver, he drove as fast as he possibly could, allowing us to confirm Einstein's Theory of Relativity by arriving at the train station several minutes before we left the hotel. We were about 15 minutes early for our 5:57 regional train to Offenburg, where we connected to the Inter-City Express train that took us directly to the Frankfurt Airport.

Where the adventures really began ...

Here's an observation about traveling on a budget: if you buy your tickets from Orbitz, and have a United Airlines flight operated by Lufthansa, there are three potential places for your plans to go off the rails. The first place is where do we check in? Our e-mail confirmation of the reservations told us to check in with "the operating carrier," which was Lufthansa, even though the ticket was for a United flight. To be on the safe side, we checked with the United counter, where the bored lady sent us to Lufthansa. Then we went to Lufthansa, and they said to check in with United. I decided the hell with it and tried - successfully - to check in at a Lufthansa kiosk (you nowadays have to go through several layers of automation before you can deal with a Real Person). Agnes then tried to check in ... and the machine told her there was no reservation in the system for anyone by that name!

A quasi-helpful Lufthansa lady tried to recover the reservation as well, without success, and directed us to one of the Real People manning the check-in counter. We explained the situation, and the fellow helpfully told us that if there was no reservation in the system, he couldn't check her in, and we would have to go upstairs and sort things out with the ticketing people. Agnes waved her confirmation message at him and tactfully suggested that he remove his head from his backside and find the #$@! reservation. The young man grudgingly poked at his computer, made a few phone calls, and - after typing in Agnes's full name, date and place of birth, blood type, Zodiac sign, the phase of the moon, and the cube root of the IQ of an average Republican member of Congress - he finally managed to discover that yes, Agnes really did have a reservation. And just to get even with us for making him work, he gave us seats in the middle section of row 54 ... which, on a 747, is so far back that your row is still landing while the people in the front are deplaning. Agnes waved her frequent-flyer card at him and asked whether we might be able to upgrade to business class, but this time the fellow wasn't having any of it ... if we wanted to try to upgrade, good luck, go upstairs to ticketing and take it up with them.

So, we went upstairs to ticketing, where we had to take a number and wait for an available agent. Our number was 400. Number 319 was just being served, and a large and unhappy crowd was muttering angrily at the single Lufthansa lady whose job it was to hand out numbers and tell angry customers there was nothing she could do. We decided to wait a half-hour, as it was then 1100, our boarding was to start at 1220, and we still had to negotiate passport control and security before heading to our gate, which - given the size of the Frankfurt Airport - was located on the outskirts of Warsaw. The wait was enlivened by the floor show provided by a large, heavily-tattooed Italian woman with big hair who shouted and gesticulated so loudly and energetically (as only Italians can do) at the Lufthansa Lady that she called for reinforcements, who arrived with enough whips and chairs to finally calm the lady down to a state of mere incandescent rage.

By 1130, they were only up to number 335, so we gave up and headed for the gate, where Agnes decided to make one more valiant try to get us upgraded. The gate agent just laughed at us, giving us a long speech about United, blah, blah Lufthansa, blah, blah vouchers, blah, blah, blah, code-sharing blah, blah, Star Alliance, blah, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc ... which was all German for sit the hell down and leave me alone.

We did luck out partially in that there was one vacant seat in our four-seat middle row, which left Agnes enough room to sprawl out a bit from time to time. I, however, was not so lucky. The seat in front of me was occupied by a querulous old lady who immediately slammed her seat back as far as it would go (just missing my nose) and kept it there for the entire flight, reducing my amount of forward clearance from the usual economy-class 2.5 inches to about 0.015 inches.

Once airborne, the flight was not much worse than any other economy-class international flight, and whatever else negative I might have to say about Lufthansa, they do have much better food and beverage service than any American airline ... we had food that was actually recognizable and edible, as well as unlimited free bar and beverage service. The bad news (and you knew there just had to be some, right?) was that we got to enjoy all this for an extra half-hour or so while our flight was diverted far to the south to avoid a huge cloud bank covering the east coast from New York to the DC area.

Once on the ground, we waited until two-thirds of the population of Western Europe deplaned ahead of us, then had the sublime experience of riding the dreaded mobile lounges (those of you who have transited Dulles Airport in Washington will know what I mean) to the International Arrivals Hall, where we waited in the endlessly switchbacking line until we finally met up with Mr Personality - the grouchiest and least-personable representative of Immigration and Customs Enforcement - who slowly went through all the motions and finally stamped our passports with a mighty ca-chunk and returned them without even a perfunctory "welcome home."

After all that, we arrived home to cloudy skies, drizzling rain, and a house still standing undamaged after surviving an earthquake and hurricane Irene within the space of a week.

We're home.

Those of you interested in the travelogue and pictures can read the last few posts for some of the highlights of our trip to Germany. Later on, I'll put up some albums on Facebook for those of you who are my friends there, and I'll probably manage to squeeze at least one more blog post out of the whole trip.

But for now, I'm going to try to go back to bed. It's 3:23 AM, and maybe I can squeeze out another hour or two of sleep before we head to the kennel to pick up poor, traumatized Nessa, who has been without her family for the last two weeks.

It's good to travel, but it's great to be home again.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.



John said...

United now contracting out portions of the "friendly" skies, eh?

Sounds like they found the right partner!

Anonymous said...

We had an interesting flight home, too. The kids behaved extremely well, but, about 3 hours into the flight, Elise started fussing for about 2 minutes. The old lady sitting in front of us immediately stood up, turned around, and told us we should put the baby in an overhead bin because she had "such a terrible headache." She was dead serious. Which prompted the old lady behind us to start yelling at the old lady in front of us that she was a "terrible, terrible person" and how could she suggest such a thing?!? I just laughed and laughed. People are crazy!

Raquel's World said...

Sounds like you need a vacation form you vacation.

Anonymous- Oh I so wish someone told me to put my baby in the overhead bin! I'm sure I would have been detained as a terrorist for the hell I would have unleashed on her!

Amanda said...

Your vacation posts were very interesting and it looks like you had a great break but after that trip home, you definitely need a mini vacation.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Well, I'm glad the actual time in
Germany was enjoyable; but those transatlantic flights are always like riding in busses in third-world countries. Immigration and Customs agents are trained to be that way, and now we have TSA!

I'm glad you are back. You need several days to recover.

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

I enjoyed the info and photo's of Germany since I have never been. Glad you made it home safe and sound.

But my tip....always use a travel agent....there is a 24 hr 800# to fix the problems you had in mere minutes and no running from kiosk to counter to luftansa to UA. Travel is tough enough without that stuff!! And just an FYI...during 9/11 the only people who couldn't get flights home or rearranged were those that booked travel online and not through an agent...FACT. and no I am not a travel agent. :-)

Mike said...

"who immediately slammed her seat back"

HA! I'm glad I'm not the only person that get the only 'seat recliner' for isles around in front of me.

KathyA said...

And in spite of this we (Agnes, you, Richard and I) still love to travel. We had a flight similar to this on British Airways, where the only difference was that the accents of the flight attendants at least made them sound polite. A two-year old sitting in front of us cried the whole way back. He fell asleep as we made our approach to BWI. Oh -- and my luggage came back three weeks later!