On the Scene: Traveling During the Blizzard

While spending the holidays in Phoenix with my family, I noticed an amusing Huffington Post article about things that have become obsolete over the last ten years. Included on the list were travel agents, which raised my hackles a bit. I made a memo-to-self to write a rebuttal upon getting home.

Then I tried to get home, and learned firsthand why travel agents aren’t obsolete at all.  

The saga began on Christmas day, when we started hearing reports of the imminent blizzard in New York. On Sunday, I called Southwest Airlines to ask their advice for getting back to the city as close to Monday evening as possible. I learned that I could change my flights (Phoenix to Chicago, Chicago to New York), but the next available one was on Thursday. Unwilling to wait that long, I watched the blizzard on TV with plenty of apprehension, but was relieved when I heard that the airports around the city would be reopening at 4 p.m. on Monday. Even better, Southwest still hadn’t cancelled or delayed either of my flights to Chicago or New York, so all signs seemed positive for getting home at a reasonable hour.

Monday morning, I arrived at Phoenix Skyharbor Airport, still checking for any delays. Nothing. I checked in and went to my gate (learning, on the way, that my parents’ flight to Newark had been cancelled and that they would be in Phoenix until Thursday), only to suddenly get a voicemail that my Chicago-to-New York flight had been cancelled. I ran out of the boarding line to ask a gate agent’s advice. No other flights to the New York City area were available, but the gate agent suggested flying to Boston and taking a train to New York. Since the blizzard seemed to be heading north, that sounded like bad advice, so I ran onto the Chicago-bound plane and decided to deal with the problem at Midway.

Now, here’s where a travel agent would have stepped in and saved the day. While I was in the air, she or he could have been calling Southwest or other airlines to get me to the east coast and finding alternate transportation to get me to New York. I could well have had an alternate game plan in place by the time I arrived in Midway.

Sadly, since I booked the flight myself, I had nothing lined up when I got off the plane in Chicago. My best bet was with the gate agents, who offered to put me on standby for a flight to Philadelphia that night and guaranteed me a seat on a plane to Washington, D.C. at 6 a.m. the next morning. (Sad side story: Southwest lost their standby list for the Philly flight, and decided to go by the “honor system” to find out who was first in line. You can just imagine how well that worked.) I was stuck.

Again, an agent would been a lifesaver at this point. (Well, maybe that’s too dramatic. Sanity-saver, though, definitely.) No hotels in the area were offering decent prices, and I couldn’t try my luck with any other airline (an agent would have contacts at both, and would have been calling all of said contacts to make the situation as good as it could be), so I had no choice but to sleep in the airport in an unused concourse filled with cots. I and the other pseudo-refugees made the best of it, but a cot isn’t a bed and an empty concourse isn’t a hotel room with a private shower.  While I sat on my cot, I booked one of the last available train tickets from Washington to New York at a painfully steep price, and learned that I would have to wait at Union Station for the better part of seven hours for my train home. Frustrated to the point of tears, I managed to fall asleep in the eerily quiet terminal.

The next morning, I was up at 4 a.m. and on my 6 a.m. flight to D.C., where I learned that my checked luggage hadn’t followed me. (Not really surprising, but one more thing to deal with in this mess.) I took a shuttle from the airport to Union Station and am now sitting in the Acela lounge waiting for my train. (The lounge is rather nice--not as many features as airport first-class lounges have, but the chairs are comfortable and there are free sodas, so I'm already doing better than I was at Midway.) I’m also kicking myself for booking my flights to and from Phoenix on my own, and for not getting an agent to help me out. For what it’s costing me to take this train from D.C. to New York, I could have had peace of mind or gotten significantly closer to home in less time. Now I’ll be getting home a good 24 hours later than scheduled—and from other horror stories I’ve been hearing, I’m one of the lucky ones. Some people have been stranded at airports for days.

Of course, it’s not the airlines’ fault that this blizzard hit on one of the heaviest travel days of the year. On the other hand, by cancelling the flights rather than delaying them, and by trying to rebook stranded passengers onto existing flights (many of which were already full), they’re making it all the harder for people to get home. I hear that American Airlines is adding unpublished flights to its schedule—call your contacts there to see if they’ll help get your clients where they need to be. But since Southwest made it very clear that they would only help me get home after they helped everyone who was already booked for their existing flights, I’m rather disinclined to ever fly with them again.

And I’m also rather disinclined to ever go on a vacation—even just to Phoenix to visit family—without an agent to contact for help again. (To add insult to injury, I'm listening to other passengers in the Acela lounge talk proudly about how their agents have helped them through the last few days.)


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