Saturday, August 20, 2011

Give Us A Break

Map picture

Give Us a Break!

“Travel Days” are stressful to begin with so when our phone rang around 8:15 am just before our scheduled 9am departure from the house, I got this creepy feeling that things were about to go south. I just did not know how far “South” they would end up.

The phone call was an automated message from American Airlines informing us that our scheduled 11am departure had been canceled, and advising us to standby the phone while they worked on alternative flights for us. I learned a long time ago that when stuff happens during a trip, you don’t just “wait” for anything, and so immediately I was on the phone to American looking for a way around this problem. When we booked out flights to Chicago, we had purposely elected to fly earlier than necessary, just to cover a contingency such as this. I was on the phone holding for almost 40 minutes, literally sweating bullets. On my computer meantime, I ran a check to see what other flights were available, and there were only two, both of which were showing full. Eventually, American came back and said that they had switched our tickets to a United flight leaving KC at 1:14 arriving Chicago at 2:30 which would give us plenty of time to make our 4:25 SAS flight to Stockholm – or so it would seem. Unfortunately, the agent could not give a seat assignment just a ticket, and then he said a funny thing – we needed to wait at home until we received an e-mail with our electronic ticket or else we might need to go to the American counter and “work it out, somehow.”

I just had a gut feeling that not all was well in flightsville, and so rather than sitting at home doing nothing, we immediately headed to the airport to check in way earlier than should be required. As it turns out, that was a lucky move. When we pulled up to the United counter for check in, the agent actually looked at us as if we had to be kidding. I gave him my sad story and showed him the electronic ticket I had received by e-mail, but all he would do was to shake his head and say there was absolutely no way we were getting on that flight. Eventually he was joined by yet another agent, and the two of them got into a heated discussion. They wanted to know who had issued this ticked and at what time it had happened. Finally a supervisor was called over. More discussion ensued, but at each opportunity the original gate agent would look at us and let it be known we were not getting on that flight, no matter what.

It turns out that the hubbub was the result of the local American Gate agent having phoned earlier this morning and asking if they could put us on United’s flight. The flight was already overbooked, and American was told “no.” So as far as the local United counter was concerned, their counterparts had ignored what they had said and tried to pull a fast one, which made them angry. That meant that they were being asked to offload one of their paying passengers to accommodate American’s problem. I think that two things occurred to modify this situation. The supervisor was able to confirm that I was indeed issued a valid electronic ticket on United in exchange for my American ticket, and that the voucher then gave me certain rights with United. Also, he was able to determine that the ticket was not issued by the local counter in violation of their discussion, but by American’s home office in Dallas. While all this was going, on Lisa and I kept sweet talking anyone who would listen – playing the poor old first time travelers who were so confused by all of this on our first big trip, and if we missed this then (boo, hoo) we would miss our cruise of a lifetime. I don’t know exactly what turned the tide, but quietly the first agent hit some buttons and slipped us boarding passes and told us to hurry to the gate before this became an issue…….Hooray and Hallelujah!

My heart was still pounding from this encounter when we approached the dreaded TSA. For those of you who have been following my experiences with the TSA at Kansas City, I have not once be able to pass through security without my entire carryon being literally stripped apart. Since my last flight, I had made a number of changes, including placing all my medical breathing equipment into a separate shoulder bag, and to my surprise, I sailed right through. BUT WAIT- Lisa was caught by TSA and denied entry into the screening area. Just to have some fun, take a moment and see if in your wildest dreams you can imagine why she would even be denied entry into the screening area. All that is required is a valid photo ID, and a current boarding pass, both of which she any ideas yet???

Well the eagled-eyed TSA agent who looked at Lisa’s passport became unglued. She used her little light over and over, and then she took her jewelers loop and examined it very closely. Finally she held it up to the light, and then begins holding it in all different directions, finely going through each and every page. Obviously completely in over her head, she picks up the microphone on her shoulder and calls for a supervisor, which brings everything to a halt. The hapless supervisor comes over and he is as dumbfounded as the gate agent. It is clear from his look that he has no clue, but he has to make a decision – want to make a guess? All of this was because Lisa’s passport over the years has obviously had pages added as we have travelled. They could not figure out if these pages were illegal or not and therefore, she was using a forged passport! After about 15 minutes of this nonsense, the supervisor gives a senatorial wave of his hand, and at last, she is allowed entry. Boy have we created a monster in the TSA.

We finally sit back and relax to wait for our flight, still a little shaken, but assured now that the worst is behind us; yeah, right!

As we hand our boarding pass over to be scanned, it comes back with a little baggage tag. It seems that we are flying on a small regional jet and all cabin bags other than purse size, must be checked at the entrance to the aircraft. Whoops – those bags were never to leave our side. As you can imagine packing for a five week trip, things such as cash, medications, cameras and computers are meant to be safeguarded at all times, but we had no choice. The flight itself was uneventful, but it arrived late into Chicago around 2:45, but since our overseas departure was at 4:25, I was not worried – but I should have been. After exiting the aircraft almost every passenger was told to line up along the ramp to wait for our bags. The entire group stood there in close quarters for almost 30 minutes before the “checked cabin bags” appeared. Now we are up to 3:15 for a 4:25 flight.

To reach our Scandinavian Air flight (SAS), we had to reach Terminal 5. Where we were parked put us at absolutely the worse place from which to reach Terminal 5. We were literally running as fast as we could – so anxious in fact that we were afraid to even stop for a bathroom break. I kept telling Lisa to slow down that we had plenty of time, but she would not hear of it. Finally, we come to the end of the passenger terminals, where we have to leave the secured area to board a shuttle train that will carry us to Terminal 5. I am keeping an eye on the clock, which by now is just speeding along, but still we should be fine. Whoops – wrong assumption. Arriving at Terminal 5 we run a long ways to the gate area to be once again confronted with a TSA pre-screening area. The lines are long, but not impossible so – however they are moving at a snail’s pace. I am still not worried until we clear the pre-screening and turn the corner to be confronted with a huge hall that is overflowing with people waiting to go through security. Now I finally lose my confidence, but I keep putting on a happy face for Lisa. As usual it seems I picked the longest line, and all the lines are quite literally moving so slowly. The clocks are ticking ever-onward. Just as I am passing through the new X-Ray machine giving some guy in the back a thrill, I hear over the PA and announcement for Mr. & Mrs. James Stevens. “Please proceed to Gate 15 for immediate boarding. This is your last call!” Holy cow – we throw everything back in the bags, and off we go running with my belt flapping in the wind. As luck would have it, we entered the terminal at Gate one, and we need to get to Gate 15. Again as luck would have it, the people movers were all turned off for maintenance, so we had only our fat furry little feet to get us there. Then yet another announcement for us – we are only at Gate 9. I see someone way down the concourse looking our direction and I start waving – when they start waving back, I know we will make it. And, make it we did, as they literally closed the doors behind us!

I don’t remember the flight all that well – after a number of scotches, I really did not care at that point! We reached our hotel and prepared to fall into bed in spite of what the clock said. I opened one of my checked bags only to find that Kansas City TSA had pulled a “gotcha” after all. There was a little insert telling me that my bag had been selected for screening – guess what, someone had simply turned the bag over and dumped everything out and then thrown it back into bag helter-skelter – one final remembrance from our friendly TSA at KC. They had not forgotten me after all.

This is way too long as it is, so I will just say that Stockholm is a wonderful, beautiful and exciting city to visit. We had a private car with a driver/guide for a four hour tour this morning. The driver was to be Sten. Well, Sten did not make it today, and so we had a very pleasant fellow who is actually a cab driver. As funny as this will sound, it ended up that I was showing him places to see and describing what was there, because he was merely a driver and not a guide in any sense. We did visit the Vasa museum, one of my favorite places in Stockholm. DSC_6039This houses the Warship Vasa which sank in the harbor on August 10, 1628 on her maiden voyage. Completely submerged in mud, she was brought up in 1961and is in almost perfect condition and today is housed in a beautiful museum. From there, I asked our driver to go places where we had not been particularly to get some good photographs. So, I don’t have much to add to what you will see in the pictures. DSC_6143We did visit the Stockholm Cathedral, where last year the Royal Wedding of the Crown Prince took place. We got there right at the end of the noon service when the Organ was playing Amazing Grace – a real moment to remember.

Tomorrow, we hopefully will board our ship the Silver Whisper. Sorry this was so long, but truthfully-you just can’t make this stuff up.


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