Monday, July 2, 2012

Let's start at the very beginning. It's a very good place to start.

Coordinating travel with more than one person is much tricker than just getting one's self across the globe, which is already a complicated task. However, the benefits (company along the long long road) more than make up for it. Erin, Rachel, and I all chose a particularly tumultuous time to take off on a plane. Rachel had just moved all of her things from Richmond to Ann Arbor, driven to Rochester and then back to Ann Arbor. Erin had just driven a Uhaul (no small feat) from Chicago to Ann Arbor and entrusted her belongings to a storage facility and the hopes that an apartment would be waiting for her when she returned. I didn't have to move anything luckily, but was making room in my house for Rachel to move in. I spent the month of May attempting to complete some archival research that could easily have filled the entire summer while finishing another research project from the previous semester and preparing for the research projects I'm working on this summer (basically I tried to do too much in too short a time, who's surprised?). All of this converged in one crazy weekend where we were all trying to pack for a two-month overseas trip while 2/3 of us were living out of suitcases. Kelly was a trooper through it all and didn't complain about the mattress propped behind the couch in the living room or the duffle bags and boxes stacked in every corner. In any event, out of all of the chaos at Pauline Manor, we managed to get our shit together long enough to start our journey.

On the road

We decided to fly out of Chicago since it was cheaper than flying out of Detroit (which is somewhat odd because a couple of the flights we looked at were routed from Chicago through Detroit to Europe, go figure). This meant that the three of us and our things needed to get to Chicago. We had planned to take the bus, but it turned out that Megabus was unusually pricey that day and the timing didn't work out very well with our scheduled flight departure. Luckily, some very dear friends in Chicago agreed to look after the little Geo for me over the summer. This turned out to be super convenient for us and will hopefully prove equally useful for them :D We left Ann Arbor around 10am on Tuesday June 12th and drove 4.5 hours to Chicago. No hitches there. We left the car and keys with friends and then took a cab to the airport. We arrived at the airport around 2:30 for a 6:30pm flight, only to find the desk for Virgin Atlantic unstaffed and a long queue of passengers waiting with luggage for who knows how long. Eventually staff members showed up and began to check people in. When we made it to the front of the line I was bracing for the worst based on my previous interactions with Virgin Atlantic staff.

The backstory

To rewind, when we initially booked our tickets with Virgin we weren't able to select seats. This surprised me so I called customer service after booking to figure out the deal. Turns out, no one in economy is allowed to select their seats until 24 hours prior to check in. I told the customer service rep that we were traveling together and wanted to ensure our seats were together and she said sorry, there's nothing they can do. That sucked, especially since we were all adjusting our plans so that we could travel together and chose Virgin Atlantic because it was the best fit for all of us, even though it wasn't necessarily a great fit for anyone individually. So we waited until Monday night/24 hours before our flight to check in only to find that we weren't able to online check in, which meant we couldn't select our seats. I called customer service again and explained the situation. The women on the phone apologized but said there was nothing she could do and that we would have to wait to select our seats until we physically checked in at the airport, with no guarantee that our seats would actually be together. I didn't want to shoot the messenger but I was pretty angry at that point (there were two other earlier phone call exchanges about our E-ticket numbers and seating etc) and wrote a long email to the Virgin Atlantic folks explaining the situation and that the customer service reps hadn't been able to help us etc. I got a form response back that did nothing to remedy the situation. Anyway, fast forward to us walking up to the check-in desk at Virgin Atlantic and I'm anything but optimistic.

The flights

The person at the desk didn't seem to know what she was doing from the start. I explained that we were traveling together (our tickets were “linked” to indicate we were a group, but this didn't mean anything apparently in terms of our seats). She said the flight was completely full and actually over-booked and that she couldn't guarantee us seats together but she would try. She eventually found us three seats together (after locating and losing another set of seats to another agent a desk over). She could only book our seats for this leg of the flight though, so we were going to have to do all of this again in London. For some reason she put all three of our checked bags under my name as opposed to putting each bag under each individual person's name. I don't recall the exact reason and it didn't seem like a problem at the time, but we were scolded for it later in London. In any event, we got our seat assignments and were on our way. Or at least, we would be on our way after hanging out in O'Hare for another couple of hours. This part wasn't so bad but they changed the gate and didn't notify anyone so there was some confusion, and we boarded late.

In any case, we eventually boarded the plane and walked all the way to the back until we found our seats, and I do mean the back. Turns out we had the last row of seats behind which were the restrooms and galley or something. It also turns out that the last row of seats doesn't recline very far. When I pointed this out to the flight attendant she informed me that they reclined the same as all the others. I told her I was fairly certain they didn't. She came over and tested the seats, realized I was right, and then said sorry but there's nothing they can do because the flight's full and there are no other empty seats. On top of that, Erin's seat's headphone jack was broken so she couldn't watch any movies on the flight. I also had a bar of sort from the seat in front of me in the middle of my leg space so that I couldn't actually stow a bag there or extend my feet in the center. All together I have to say they were probably the most uncomfortable seats I've ever been on in a trans-atlantic flight.

trying to get comfy

awful bar between my feet
The upside is that the flight staff felt bad for us and recognized that we had crappier seats than most (of the already crappy seats). They gave us some bonus miles, which hopefully we can use to upgrade on the return flights, otherwise they're useless as I doubt I'll fly Virgin again. They also poured us generous drinks, which helped improve our moods somewhat. Erin slept a bit, Rachel and I watched a Brat Pitt movie about baseball, and we ate some crappy pasta. 8.5 hours later we arrived in London.

these all once held Dewar's
Take two

When we disembarked we went to a desk where another Virgin Atlantic staff member was supposed to give us our boarding passes for the London-Delhi leg of the flight. The first person we spoke to freaked out because we were going to India but didn't have Indian visas. She passed us onto someone else who also was very concerned we were going to India without visas.

Why is this an issue, you might ask. After all, folks transfer flights all the time in countries for which they do not hold a visa. Unfortunately, when transferring from one airline to another in India one has to physically pick up one's checked luggage and recheck it onto the next flight. Not the end of the world. But in order to do that, one must first go through customs, which requires a visa. So in order to pick up and re-check your bag, you need a valid Indian visa. While I actually have an Indian visa because I'm planning to go to India after Nepal, I wasn't able to use it when we landed because there's a no re-entry for 60 days rule. We'll only be in Nepal for 58 days, so I would have to hang out in the airport in Delhi for 2 days before being able to go through customs in India again, or hang out in Nepal for two days after Erin and Rachel left and classes were over. A giant mess basically.

In any event, the person at the desk didn't think it was possible for us to transfer in Delhi to a flight to Kathmandu. I told her it was and that we just needed to have our bags transferred from Virgin Atlantic to Spice Jet (the airline we were taking to Kathmandu). There's an international transfer desk in the Delhi airport and supposedly (based off of friends' and random people on the internet's experiences) all you have to do is go up to the desk and give them your flight information and they'll take care of transferring your luggage. I told the woman at the desk this (minus the “supposedly”). She called someone in baggage claim and told them to mark our bags so that they would be picked up for transfer in Delhi, which seemed simple enough. She said she wasn't promising anything and that what she did might not work and it was our own problem if our bags didn't make it, all very stern and disapproving. Then she assigned us our seats without giving us any say in the matter. When I said we wanted seats together she said, like the person in O'Hare, that the flight was full and we'd have to take what we could get. It turned out to be okay. Rachel and I were in an exit row and Erin was in a seat behind us, so we could still turn around to talk. But I'm getting ahead of myself, we still had the layover in Heathrow.


I have to say, Heathrow isn't the best airport if you have to hang out for a long while. There are a bunch of nice shops and decent, albeit super expensive, bars and restaurants. However, if you need to hang out for more than a few hours there's nowhere comfortable, quiet, or out of the way to wait it out. We contemplated leaving the airport and going into London, and maybe it would have been more fun if we had, but we didn't. We stayed in the airport in part because we didn't want to spend a bunch of money traveling into London for a few hours (although the airport ended up being expensive enough that maybe we should have left) and because we really just wanted to sleep and not go sight seeing (although we weren't really able to sleep so perhaps checking into a hotel would have been more effective). In any case, we were exhausted and didn't want to try to navigate London with all our carry on luggage while jet-lagged etc., so we hung out in Heathrow. Resigned to stay, we made camp on a row of unoccupied chairs flanked by duty free shopping on one side and a row of high-end clothing retailers on the other. We took turns trying to sleep, got up from time to time to walk around, brush our teeth, get a snack etc. It was a long 14 hours. Yep, 14 hours. Finally, it was time to board our flight to India. 

More to come...

No comments:

Post a Comment