Alison's Writing Portfolio · Daybook · On Places & Travel

Surviving Stuck at the Airport: A Las Vegas Parable

x-posted on Huffington Post.

I finally made it home to New York City on Friday from Las Vegas, after three unsuccessful attempts to leave Sin City, which tacked two extra nights on to my trip. 

The state of existence called  "stuck at the airport" is a special kind of hell, and in my journey through it, I was reminded that there are better and worse ways to handle it. Also, there are also some pre-emptive steps that are smart to take if you think you're heading into a traveler's nightmare –which you very well may be, given nationwide messy weather and the holiday travel season. 

So here, a chronicle of my attempts to leave Las Vegas, and the lessons you can learn from it. (12 tips distilled here.)

Attempt  #1:
I was originally scheduled to leave Las Vegas on Continental 1579, departing 12:15 p.m. My friend Andrew and I had breakfast  Hash House A Go-Go (we shared Andy's Sage Fried Chicken w/ maple reduction, 2 eggs, bacon mashed potatoes & biscuit), I checked on my BlackBerry and saw that my flight had a two and a half hour delay. I'd already checked in online, so I was in no rush to get to the airport.

 At about noon, my husband Phil texted to say that the delay had suddenly shrunk by an hour.  I headed to the airport right away.  During the twenty minute drive, the delay dropped back even further, and by the time I'd arrived at the airport, I'd missed my flight.

Moral of the story:

  • This is a complicated one, because generally, checking flight status on line can help you avoid lots of extra time at the airport.  However, as the man behind the counter scolded me, air traffic control delays are capricious, and can grow or shrink, sometimes dramatically.  Having a two hour delay shrink into 15 minutes is very nice if you're awaiting a connection, not so nice if you're not yet at the airport. If you really don't want to miss your flight, and you see your flight is delayed because of air traffic control, you're still best off being at the airport at least a half hour before your scheduled departure. 
  • Find out why you're delayed: if you're delayed because the plane you're supposed to be on hasn't arrived yet, as opposed to air traffic control delay, it's less likely to shrink suddenly.

Attempt #2
I got re-booked on a 4 p.m. flight. But it had already started to snow. Yes, Las Vegas was getting a snowstorm, and it was a doozy: a record-breaking snowfall, the most in December since records started being kept in 1937. Okay, it was only 3.6 inches, but this is the desert.

I arrived back at the airport in plenty of time, checked in, and headed to the gate. At first glance, I could tell that it wasn't going well, there were long lines in front of each gate podium: flights had been canceled, people were waiting for  re-booking. I took a seat at my gate, where I overheard flight attendants chatting about how this how the airport didn't have any de-icing equipment. I looked outside the window, and saw the pilot getting off of my plane. I figured my fight was going to cancel. I moved a little closer to the podium, so I could overhear what other passengers were asking.

A side note: this is how I found out that the flight I'd originally scheduled to be on that morning actually hadn't left at all. It pulled away from the gate a few times, but never took off, and in fact, four hours laster, the flight had just officially canceled.

 I also overheard this exchange between gate podium agent and passenger:
 "You can't get me back to New York until December 22nd?" {Five days hence.}
"That's right sir, all of our flights are booked."
"You're kidding!"
"Why would I kid you?"
Expletives deleted.

Hmmm. That didn't sound good. I walked up to the podium and smiled at the harried agent. I said, did I just overhear that there are no seats available to Newark until the 22nd? She said I'd heard correctly, that Continental only flies to Newark, Houston and Cleavland from Las Vegas, and that all flights were booked. I said, I know you can't tell me officially whether this flight will cancel, but, do you advise that I call reservations right now to try to figure something else out. And she said yes.

I called Continental, where I have elite status by virtue of my frequent flier miles, and spoke to a dedicated elite agent. She confirmed everything, and I asked her to research other routings for me, through either Houston or Cleveland to get me home the next day.  She told me she couldn't book anything until my flight canceled, which I assured her was imminent. The airport was shutting down. As we spoke, my flight, and every other flight that night canceled, and in a flurry of fingers across a keyboard somewhere, a seat became available on a flight to Houston the next day. I grabbed it.  As everyone else lined up at the desk to rebook, I was able to head for the exit.

Moral of the story:

  • Although it's tempting to tune out at the airport, if things aren't going quite right, you need information. Pay attention, sit near the podium or near the door to the gate where airport staff tend to congregate, eavesdrop shamelessly. The information you gather won't always be accurate –for instance, I later learned that Las Vegas does have de-icing equipment, just not enough of it and in the right places to prevent disruption –but the spirit of the information was accurate enough.
  • Always be nice to airport personnel. Yelling accomplishes less than nothing. Do whatever you have to do to be charming and nice. 
  • Before you leave home, make sure you have the phone number of your airline programmed into your phone. Time is of the essence when a flight cancels, you're competing with all of your fellow passengers for a seat on another flight, and standing online to talk to the gate agent is just a waste of it –there's nothing that they can do for you that the 800 number cannot.
  • Make sure you have a charged cell phone: it's easy to run down your battery chatting to friends and family if you're delayed for a while, but you're really going to need that phone to talk to airline (see above), arrange hotel and so on.  One woman I met had run down her cell phone and was unable to make a hotel reservation, so she was just showing up at the hotel desk, which is never a good way to secure a low rate.  So either make sure you have your charger with you (and find a wall outlet) or pack a battery-powered emergency charger.   
  • Think about how you'll make backup hotel arrangements. It was a surprise to many of my fellow passengers that the airlines didn't just make hotel arrangements for everyone, but while policies vary from airline to airline, the best bet is not to count on the airline to do a thing for you. Some will give you vouchers for free or discounted hotel rooms, many will only give you a list of area hotels offering "distressed traveler's rate", and these may sell out fast. I was lucky that I was in Las Vegas at a slow time, so there were plenty of rooms, and further, that Andrew was still in town and just made my arrangements for me.  If you don't have a buddy waiting to jump in,  you can call  Expedia 1-800-EXPEDIA and Orbitz 1-888-656-4546 to book rooms, or deputize someone at home who can use a computer to help you find the best rate on a hotel room.
  • Also, this may seem obvious, but, you've got to have some emergency cash or credit available to cover a few extra days. No doubt this was exacerbated by it being Las Vegas, but there were a number of people at the airport who had no extra money at all, and were going to have to sleep in the airport that night. 

Attempt #3
Reservations had re-booked me on a flight through Houston the next day. Or so I thought. When I arrived at the airport, it turned out that I'd actually been booked on a flight leaving Las Vegas the next day, Friday. And there were no seats on any other plane that day.  One more night in Vegas for me!

Moral of the story:
Although I'd repeatedly asked to confirm the flight information and said "tomorrow" probably 20 times, all it takes is a slip of the finger to misenter a date. Use specific dates when you're handling things over the phone, and have everything read back to you.

Attempt #4
While I was at the airport counter anyway, I turned on the charm and asked to explore other options to get me home a little earlier, and perhaps not through Houston. From this, I learned that while next day's  6:15 am flight direct to Newark was completely booked, many, many people miss that flight (since you have to be checked in by 5:45 a.m.) and that no one was, as yet, on standby for that flight.  I got on the list. And the next day, I got on the flight. I landed the moment before Newark shut down for the winter storm that  caused all my problems in the first place.

Moral of the story: 

  • If you're really close to achieving elite status on an airline, or
    jumping up a level, and you travel enough to make this worthwhile,
    consider purchasing miles to jump up a level before you leave home. Not only was I able to call a different reservations number, I was also ahead on the standby list, since the airline prioritizes standby passengers by their elite status, among other factors.  (There were 25 people on the list all together, I think only 10 made it on that flight. I even got a window seat.)
  • Standby is always a judgment call, but it's worth a try if you're not too far on the list. It's best to do this if you're not checking bags, though, so when you're packing, think about how you'll carry your bags on if need's be. (Leave the jumbo sized toiletries at home, for instance.
  • And finally, universally: It never hurts to be lucky.

2 thoughts on “Surviving Stuck at the Airport: A Las Vegas Parable

  1. Linda, I hope your flights go very smoothly and that you will not have to use a single piece of this advice! (And congrats on the baby!)

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