How to plan a trip to the US

 Originally posted to Thursday March 4, 2010.

The day before the flight from Sydney to LA, we drove from our Gallery in Port Macquarie to stay overnight with our good friends on the Central Coast of NSW just an hour or so from Sydney airport. A pleasant enough drive, although the 4 hours in the car saw us both battling fatigue. The events of recent times had taken their toll.

We had the Gallery up for auction 3 weeks before we undertook this trip, the plan being that we would put the last of our possessions in storage and look at purchasing again on our return. The Real Estate Agent forgot to attend an Open House one weekend and then weather opened up for the week before the auction. Now when I say opened up – I’m serious. Torrential rain, steaming hot, intolerably sticky, life giving rain fell like a waterfall. Many roads were cut-off in the area and of course, virtually no-one came to inspect the property. We called off the auction, knowing it had little chance of selling.

Along with the rain came a number of small leaks. All of these leaks were around the roofline and on closer inspection, we discovered that the box gutters had all but disappeared. Naturally we called in the roofing guy, then the guttering guy, then all of them. A couple showed up to say it was too hard, most didn’t show. Some sheets of plastic, various adhesives and polyurethane filler, together with four days work and we had patched most of the holes ourselves.

Of course with all the inspection work, we discovered termites. The termite man came, dug out a few bits of wall and ceiling and announced a $6-7000 cure. He started work, but needed a manhole to be cut in the ceiling. As we have a flat roof, there wasn’t really any purpose in a manhole except as an inspection point for termites. Our friend Rick from across the road is a qualified builder, and he was good enough to offer to supply and fit a manhole and cover.

The next day, Rick is cutting out the manhole and discovered…. asbestos. We cleaned up the area as best we could, stood under the hose to wash off and bundled up our clothes for disposal.
Of course, the whole of the property had been inspected for asbestos when we did renovations 3 years earlier, and after the boys in disposable overalls had been out and spent all our money, we were declared asbestos free.

Not so.

It is now 2 days before we leave for the US, and the property has suspect guttering, damp internal wall studs and thousands of termites chowing down on soggy asbestos.

Hmmmm. The decision to abandon the place just got easier.

We felt fortunate to have the opportunity to travel back to the US, where Gayle was to negotiate her Australian Permanency and of course, where she would be able to catch up with her family that she hadn’t seen for 12 months. An overnight stay and we would be in the US 15 hours later… wonderful stuff.

Or was it???
We arrived on the Central Coast of NSW and stayed over with our friends who were also looking after our car in our absence. A pleasant evening preceded a planned mid morning run to the airport, to catch a plane due to leave at 3:10 pm.  A text message came from the airline at 11:00 am as we were loading into the car… ‘Your flight is now estimated to leave at 10 pm”.

This has implications… we have connecting flights that are to take us from LA to Chicago to Raleigh/Durham NC – our destination. We have a hotel booked for our arrival at Raleigh, and our car being delivered to the hotel…
Foolishly I got on the phone to discuss the situation with the airline ‘Qantas’ before proceeding. After an hour and a half wait, I finally spoke to a human, and was advised I could be on an earlier flight, if I was at the gate lounge now. We weren’t. We were calling from a home phone an hour and a half away from the airport. The decision to just go to the airport was a no-brainer and so off we went to try to make up the lost time spent on the interminable ‘help desk’ phone call.

Arriving at the airport with our paperwork all ready, and our need to secure connections (or have them changed for us while we were in flight) seemed rational. After standing in ticketing queues to be told over and over that our flight was cancelled, we finally got someone to listen. They decided the fastest way to get to LA was to catch a flight to Melbourne and leave from there, as Sydney Airport was under virtual lockdown due to a ‘Medical Emergency’. We made our way to the domestic flight terminal to board the Melbourne bound plane, only to be told…. it was delayed.

Obviously this meant that the chance of making the connection to the Melbourne – LA flight was going to be diminished. We sweated. An hour later we were told that the Melbourne to LA flight had also been delayed, so we had nothing to worry about.

But of course we did!

If that flight was delayed, then our LA connections would be missed… so of course, our LA connections were missed.

After being searched, probed and prodded at both Sydney and Melbourne domestic terminals, we were really ready to sit for the next 15 hours on an A380 and sleep… but there was more to come.
In order to catch a domestic flight from Sydney to Melbourne, we had to repack our carry on luggage to meet the domestic conditions. So after being refused entry to the International Departure Lounge, we returned to the Ticketing office, got in a queue – just one more time, and were handed a couple of plastic bags to place some of our heavier goods in – to spread the load. After re-arranging everything a number of times until we scored little tickets to say that we complied – we re-entered the Departure Lounge after boarding had started. A swift charge through the Duty Free aisles and we arrived to find that, yes, the flight had been delayed one more time. This was an opportunity that the security staff couldn’t turn up.

According to recent US regulation, anyone boarding a flight that is bound for the US has to be frisked by hand, and have every single item that is being carried aboard manually checked. They relished the idea of embarrassing people that had secreted away battery powered devices or other paraphernalia for their traveling pleasure.

I need to be honest here – I was carrying more than my own weight (it seemed at least) in computers, cameras. lenses and of course, hard disk drives. As a photographer, my life exists in digital media, and while I have a backup in Australia, every time I travel, I have to carry more hard disks with more information than last time. This has led me to the cutting edge of technology, which as we all know is a moveable feast. My latest set of travel disks amounts to a group of 10 USB powered notebook drives that are either 500 Gb or 1 Tb in size, each. These were all placed in individual small pouches which were then placed in… rolled up socks; a trick that has served me well over the years. Of course I was accused of attempting to smuggle items in concealed places, but that was not really the concern of the outgoing Transport Security Officers – they would simply pass the information on to US Customs so that I would be afforded a special greeting on my arrival.

We boarded the plane without incident, waited forever on the tarmac, and took off to LA. This 5 pm flight left at exactly 8 pm, and of course, we just knew that we would miss our connections. There was no chance of a 16 hour trip only taking 13 hours – so, we had the opportunity of wondering what would happen on our arrival in LA.

We missed our connections.

As all good travelers do, we dutifully filled out our Customs Declaration cards and of course our Immigration cards. I was traveling on a special Visa, known as Advanced Parole. Now before you start with the smart remarks….”Why would the Government want to have me paroled?” etc… I have heard them all.
Needless to say, so had the US Customs and Border Patrol unit.

So, as we go through the Immigration turnstiles that allow people into the Baggage area and Customs Hall, lucky me gets singled out for some special treatment. My passport is confiscated as I am told to recover my luggage and return to the ‘holding pen’. This area seemed similar to a church choir box, but has a large sign above it that states Interviews for Deportees and Admission Requests.
Obviously, my life was getting simpler.
Gayle is hovering around making gentle squawking and grinding noises – a bit like R2D2 on low batteries, and is made to keep her distance. I have to fill out a few more forms, take those backwards and forwards between a few open offices – like nurses stations – and then they stare at me blankly asking what I am going to do next. By this time I am ready to fall asleep on them – but I remarked that when I got my passport back, I fully intended to travel to North Carolina and fall asleep there. That seemed to satisfy them, so they gave me back my passport and allowed me to proceed to Customs with Gayle and baggage.

Confused, tired, irritated and still wondering why I was singled out for a potential deportation decision, I blundered on through Customs. When the Customs Officer asked me what was in my bags, I’m sure I said something like “my stuff”. he totally ignored me, looked at the ceiling and we both sailed through.

At last we were on US soil, had our baggage and were free to relax – except of course, we had no plane to catch, no hotel to stay in and we had already been up for 28 hours.

Back in Australia, when we were being advised to leave Australia from Melbourne instead of Sydney, Qantas staff had been very thorough in pointing out that they had no liability regarding our connections, as the bookings were not made with Qantas. They would get us to LA on the next available flight, and they then washed their hands of the whole problem. Maybe our travel insurance would cover their incompetence…? This story was echoed down the line from Sydney to Melbourne to LA.

As Gayle is apt to do, she made a friend. Gayle got chatting to a Qantas employee while I was in the holding pen, singing the praises of the US Government. Gayle had been assured that the problem would be rectified the best way possible. We stumbled up to the Qantas booking office in LA, and asked about re-routing, lost connections and potential brain aneurisms. They immediately responded with, let’s book you into a hotel and get you on the next available connections to your destination – Raleigh/Durham airport. This was done at standard bureaucratic speed, but efficiently. We departed with a hotel booking number, three possible flight connections and directions to pick up the Hotel’s Shuttle. I believe that Gayle actually attempted to smile for the first time in over 30 hours.

She should have waited….

Our connecting flight to NC left Delta’s Terminal three hours ago. We checked – the only flight that we had heard of so far that hadn’t been delayed. Naturally, we weren’t on it. Qantas had given us three options – 2 Delta flights and a US Airways flight. We actually opted for the latest flight – US Airways, because that would give us more time to relax at the hotel, before re-embarking on our quest. Oddly, we felt that we would like a break in the action, and alcohol was not a wise option at that stage. It’s now 5 pm local time, we can go straight to the hotel and catch a flight at 11:30 at night that will fly across the country, depositing us in time for breakfast – because of time zones.

Out of the queue, out the door, along the road to the shuttle bay and wait. Twenty minutes later the right bus comes along and shuttles us off to the hotel, by 5:45 pm we are in the hotel foyer, along with…. 60 other people that have had a similar disaster beset them. The hotel is running out of rooms, we are running out of patience, and the time is ticking. At 7 pm we have a key and finally entered our room. We dive for the showers – lay flat out on the bed for 20 minutes, and realize we are way too wired to possibly try to sleep, and if we did, we would be way too tired to possibly wake up in time for the flight.
We agreed, it was time to go down to the restaurant (free meal vouchers courtesy of Qantas) and try to get back on track.

As we waited for our meals to be delivered, Gayle and I realized that this might be a ruse to get us out of the airport, while they hurriedly packed it up and flew it off somewhere. Yes, the jetlag, tiredness and general paranoia was settling in nicely. (It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you, is it?)
Still, trust your instincts… we ran upstairs at 8:20 pm and grabbed our bags. We found a shuttle about to depart for the airport and grabbed it. We decided to go to the Delta terminal for the earlier flight (just in case something went wrong) and jumped out ready to stand in a queue for the next 45 minute shuffle waiting to be served. Naturally, we are carrying too many bags, with too much stuff to jump anywhere – so in reality, we trudged. The queues were long and disputed, people hopping from one line to another, and another hour was wasted. We got to the Associate on the counter and of course there was no such flight, no such destination and no record of us at all. Whimpering didn’t seem to be of any assistance, and we are well aware that shouting in an airport just provides a quick trip to Guantanamo Bay – so we stuck with whimpering. It’s 9:05 pm – no problem, 11:30 pm flights don’t board till 11 pm we should have plenty of time.

Just time to dash up to US Airways and maybe catch the last plane to Chicago, before it became the first plane to Chicago the next day – of course we have relinquished our hotel room, so we damn well better get out of here!

US Airways was in the far terminal, so we waited and caught a shuttle bus that connects to that terminal – no drama – dropped at the door at 9:20 pm.
Once again in line, once again re-packing our bags to try to comply with a change of carry-on requirements, once more into the breach….. at 10:10 pm we were seen by a US Airways Associate that was very helpful. They didn’t have a seat, they didn’t have a plane going to Raleigh, or Chicago or anywhere else of any value, and they had never heard of us, but they were helpful. They didn’t pretend to be able to solve the problem, they helped by just saying ‘NO, you aren’t flying with US Air tonight’.

Along with the whimpering came a small bleat for …help…

I noticed that all of the US Airways flights had a different sequence of numbers than any on our schedule that had been given to us by Qantas 5 hours earlier. I asked – I was told that those were actually more like United Airlines numbers. I wondered… could Qantas possibly have made a mistake? Could they have simply put UA instead of US as a flight designator? Worth a try, because nothing else was working. Where in the name of all that’s good and holy is the United Counter???  Oh… back on the same terminal as Delta of course. We were advised to run – it was faster than the shuttle. Running seemed like a fun idea, we hadn’t had a lot of exercise lately, and we were really in the peak of condition. The directions – along the street, down the alley, across the parking lot seemed perfectly reasonable and we had plenty of time, it was only 10:25 pm and this was LA airport – no drama going for a walk in the dark with all of our worldly possessions in tow.

We made it in plenty of time. We were in a queue at the United Airlines counter at 10:35 pm. We waited, we repacked some luggage, because we were getting out of practice, and realized that the sound all around us was not the planes taking off but the people in the queue whimpering. At precisely 11:00 pm we hit the counter, red-eyed, bedraggled, whimpering and beaten.

We were in the wrong line.
Start again.
We were trying to be heard over the other people that had been passed out to purgatory, but of course, we were invisible. Faster this time, it seems everyone had an opportunity to have pre-re-packed their luggage, and things went far more smoothly. This was not because of the United Airlines staff. They seemed to take great delight in the angst of the people who provided them with jobs, and they took every opportunity to be ugly, mean spirited and unhelpful. But we had a booking number, and it was theirs.

We finally got the numbers in the lottery. This flight, these passengers, this time, this airline, this counter this terminal… but of course, the flight was closing – it’s 11:03 pm

We talked our way past this one, through our whimpering, and promised to run all the way to the Departure Lounge. We grabbed our boarding passes as if we were possessed by demons and bolted, limping and whimpering for the Departure Gate. Naturally, we were last on board but we were on board, on our way to Chicago – what could possibly go wrong???

You’ll see….

The fact that we didn’t have seats together for the flight from LA to Chicago was of no real concern, as a matter of fact, a woman offered to swap seats immediately we got on board. All was good. Time to sit back, doze in front of a movie and while away the three hour flight to Chicago. The minor wait on the tarmac was of no real concern because we had twenty minutes to get to our Raleigh connection in Chicago.

The 11:35 flight started to taxi out to the takeoff position at 12:10 am – we were 35 minutes late, and apparently, so the gossip in the aisles was saying, snow had slowed down all flights in and out of Chicago. Perhaps our Raleigh connection would be late also. Everything else had been. The movie came on, exhausted and at the verge of tears, we dozed and watched on and off.

The flight time was to be 3 hours 45 minutes, but of course the pilot would attempt to make up time. The flight took 3 hours 45 minutes arriving at 5:55 am local time. That gave us 40 minutes to clear this plane, run through approximately a mile and a quarter of Chicago Airport, be searched, repack our carry on, get boarding passes and hopefully have an opportunity to stand in a queue somewhere. We romped it in! Two oldsters hobbling and cuss squawking at those wonderful people that always seem to cross in front of you when you have picked up the most momentum, hollering ” are you sure that’s the right gate number?” at each other from time to time and generally clocking better times than most Olympic qualifiers.

The plane was late.
See, this was a good thing. This was going to be the last flight of the trip and we had ceased caring. We couldn’t miss it – we were there. In good time we were given the opportunity to board. This was a walk-up micro plane operated by Mesa Airlines for United Express for United Airlines – no more than 50 seats. Only a two hour hop across the last time zone and we would be at our final airport for the month. How exhilarating to just imagine. The airport was warm although there was snow outside. We removed our jackets and put them in our hand luggage so they would be available when we finally left the air-conditioned world of air travel.

Because of the size of the plane ALL hand luggage was to be stored in the baggage section under the plane. We weren’t informed, it was just taken from us as we walked across the tarmac. We were assured that we would be able to collect it on the tarmac at Raleigh. Damn – no time to repack, nowhere to repack to and my precious laptop, hard disks, lenses and cameras were being tossed like salad into the belly of this toy plane. I nearly cried – 20,000 miles of lugging all that stuff around, and it was finally into the terminal abuse zone. Perhaps I would be lucky. We completed the final dash to the plane, in sleet and snow without our jackets – they had been taken along with our hand luggage.

We took our seats as we listened to the flight attendant arguing with one of the ground staff – the conversation was unintelligible, but the emotions were running high. I nearly asked if I could join in, I was so ready for an argument with just about anyone at the time. The plane at least was warm. We also noticed that there were only 15 or 20 seats filled. That’s when we were all ordered off the plane, because they had forgotten to do their safety checks, (and they sure as hell didn’t need us around to see their incompetence!)
We fought a near blizzard to get back across the tarmac, back into the departure lounge and… we stood in a queue – at least we had a chance to thaw out.

Thirty minutes later, after having deloused the plane or whatever they were doing, we were allowed to board again. During the icy dash to the plane, we noticed that all of our hand luggage that had been taken from us and put onto a trolley, was now sitting on the tarmac, in the snow, on the wet concrete. Imagine the feeling of the passengers watching their Gucci handbags turn into sludge – as I imagined my electronic life being sucked out of me.

We were ordered into our seats and told to hurry up – hell we had been waiting for an hour, watching our worldly possessions freeze or worse, get waterlogged and they wanted US to hurry up! Before the passengers could find their seats, the plane started its taxi. The attendant was openly aggressive to anyone that she could pick on for any reason. A seatbelt sash out of place seemed like a major disaster.

Gayle and I had been separated again, I think they understood that we were ready to start plotting something – but of course we were so totally whelmed that thinking processes had been removed to allow the last of our energy to be directed to the autonomic reflex system. We were stunned robots.

The plane landed in Raleigh. The hand luggage was placed on the tarmac for people to pick through. All of my precious digital ware was ice cold and strewn about inside the bag. The laptop fan now screeches occasionally and then flaps and whirs a lot. The computer only works for an hour at a time, then overheats and shuts down. One of the external hard disks – a 1 Terabyte drive jam packed with images, will never work again. I have backups, but they are under lock and key, 20,000 miles away.

We collected our checked luggage, and surprise, surprise – it had all arrived, battered, handles torn, but intact. We called for our free shuttle to the hotel, waited 15 minutes and arrived to see our car in the carpark waiting for us. So shiny and freshly detailed, by Gayle’s loving brother, it was an old friend in a new suit – perfect! It was 10:10 am Sunday local time. Hotel checkout was at 10:00 am – naturally we forfeited our room, paid for another, and sat sobbing in the shower for an hour before attempting to sleep.

We had arrived.
Total travel time:

6 hours drive from Port Macquarie to Sydney
38 hours in airports and planes
Total 44 hours travel time.

A special Thank you to all the management and staff of Qantas International, Delta Airlines, US Airways, United Airlines and Mesa Airlines for making this trip so relaxing and uneventful and making this story possible.

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