Friday, September 04, 2009

707 reasons to patronize your Local Travel Agent

Travel agents have become a thing of the past at least for anyone with a tad of internet savvy. These days you just pick a site and you enter your desires and the next thing you know you’re in Manitoba. Well, it would be nice if it was that simple but the truth is that you need to pay attention to a lot of details or you might find yourself in Mali.

I did a lot of shopping around for decent prices for our trip to Ireland with one goal in mind – mileage on United to help meet my goal of continuing my status. Because United doesn’t fly to Dublin, I had to get really creative and pick cheap fares to London and commuter hops over to Dublin. Not a big problem but a bit tricky, some extra work aligning times and locations and making sure that we had plenty of time to make connections across two different ticket booking system, United and Expedia. Being the King of Spreadsheets I had laid it all out and aligned this with that and paid for the whole shebang.

Details arranged I filed them away and forgot about everything until the night before our departure when My Lovely Wife made a couple of comments about a 7 hour layover in Washington and an arrival in Ireland at 2:40PM. Both of those details were news to me being 110% positive that we were getting in around 10:30n and that I had not booked a half day in the international lounge, so sure that I had planned on sending a message to the hotel demanding early check-in. I pulled out my itineraries and lo and behold there was a problem – we were arriving in London at 10:40 and Dublin at 2:40 which was fine except that our flight between the two was leaving London at 8:55 AM. Somehow, something had changed or I had selected the wrong flights in the first place, just the kind of thing you want to find out the night before you leave. I spent a few minutes storming around in disbelief before deciding that I had to get on the phone with Expedia and see if there was a chance of heading off into the unknown with a workable set of tickets. The good news was “yes” there were seats available on a later flight. The bad news was my really cheap tickets turned out to be $707 cheaper than what I needed to make it work. Credit cards have amazing restorative powers, don’t they?

We went off the next morning with workable tickets in hand and began our long flight to the east. It’s funny how flights are early when you have plenty of time to spare, and late when your connection is close. True to form, we arrived in Washington about 30 minutes ahead of schedule making our layover even worse. Before heading to the lounge we checked the board and the question of my ticketing gaffe was instantly answered – there was a 5:40 flight leaving for Heathrow, 4 hours before ours. What must have happened was I had chosen that flight but when I made the final choices I somehow picked the later one. At least I had a reasonable explanation for the failure of my planning – I was a victim of two many choices. We stopped by the service desk to see if we could sneak on the earlier flight but the answer was “no” - both flights were overbooked and holding long standby lists. I also asked about our business class upgrade status, as we were still showing as being on the wait list. Better news here, I was #1, but My Lovely Wife was #4. This was a new one on me as I thought my exalted status applied to both of us but apparently not – people are judged by their personal status and so she was down the list a bit. We left and settled in for the long wait.

As our departure time neared we went off in search of actual food having spent the better part of the last 6 hours eating shortbread cookies and Kit Kats. This is the problem with lounges, there is plenty of bad stuff to eat and little that’s good. And honestly, how can anyone turn down an afternoon of endless Kit Kats? We settled on a Cheese Quesadilla to set us on the road to better nutrition.

At an hour before boarding time I wandered up to the gate and asked the agent again about our status. I was still holding down spot #1, but My Lovely Wife’s condition had degraded – she was now down to #11 and the agent did not think that the prognosis was good. She asked me what I wanted to do if I alone received the upgrade and I told her that we would keep our original seats. She told me that I was sweet. We settled in to wait.

They called boarding for those with status and we got in line. I watched the board – My Lovely Wife’s condition had improved to #7. And then #6. And then #4. But we had not been called and the line was now moving. Just as I was handing our tickets to the agent, they called us – we’d both made it! I thanked the desk agent profusely and down the ramp we went.

One of the weirder things about flying to Europe is the length of the travel. Unlike China, these flights are just not long enough to accommodate two meals even though they a kind enough to offer them. You eat dinner at some absurdly late hour and then they hit you with breakfast 3 hours later. While I would never be so rude as to turn their hospitality down, I do find myself pretty stuffed by the time the plane lands. My Lovely Wife continued with long standing jinx when it comes to audio visual systems and was unable to watch movies or listen to music. I even had to jam a piece of paper into the hinge on her viewing screen to keep it from falling down. I reluctantly offered mine, but she declined.

Once again we arrived on time but Heathrow has a funny way of eating up your gap. We were lucky to arrive in the same terminal we were to depart from but luck is a moveable term in this airport. I don’t think I have ever been in a stranger more confusing place. While the signs to the transfer desks were both ample and clear, the path was about a circuitous as it could possibly be without actually doubling back on itself. Up and down, back and forth, through corridors and tubes, across expanses of marble and around behind semi-transparent panels. At least we didn’t have to ride a bus. We eventually made it through passport control and cleared biometric processing before finding ourselves at the transfer desk. No problems with the new departure time, my $707 had paved the way. We got our seat assignments, made a pass through a couple of boutiques and went off in search of another lounge.


This lounge took bad for you food to a new level with bowls of Cadbury bars and piles of those really good shortbread cookies that make life worth living. Here though were some that never make it to our shores – chocolate and oatmeal versions I never knew existed. I settled in to allow the sugar coma to completely wash over me.

Our departure was once again on time, I guess the Travel Gods were making up for that little incident last weekend in Beijing. We went off in search of the gate and found the path through a seemingly endless serried of tunnels that brought to mind one of those plastic Gerbil habitats you find at Petsmart only made out of Quonset hut material. It went on for so long that we were not surprised to find signs estimating how much longer we had to walk to reach our destination. Some of the tubes were lined with wallpaper that made it seem as though you were walking through a miniature forest, every once in a while coming to a saloon in a clearing. Eventually we made it to our gate, waited a bit and then headed out for the last leg of the trip.

I love flying into Ireland because the landscape is so interesting – and broad expanse of green divided up by hedgerows giving the impression of a giant mono-color patchwork quilt. Clouds broke up the sunshine and rain showers swept hillsides in the distance – between the land and the seashore it was absolutely inspiring.


The plane landed and we began our second airport migration of the day, this one more familiar to me as I’d done it so many times before. We got stuck in passport control for a long, long time behind a couple of guys who the computer did not much like. Our rental car was waiting and after continuing my tradition of running over the curb just outside the Hertz shack I got us out on the highway.

My Lovely Wife spent the next 45 minutes wondering if she was going to survive the drive into town. While I’m not a bad driver, it’s hard to get into the swing of driving on the wrong side of the road. I tend to drift too much to my left and so it must be a bit disconcerting to be sitting on that side of the car. We pretty much decided it was just as weird being a passenger as it was bring a driver and heading into the center of Dublin didn’t make it any better, culminating with me crushing a parking cone outside the hotel. We got out of the car and handed the keys to the doorman figuring we’d just abandon it for a couple of days.

So here we were, our first big night in Dublin. We wandered around St. Stephen’s Green, Grafton Street and Temple Bar before settling on a nice $100 dinner at a Spanish Tapas restaurant. How one can spend that kind of change on tapas is beyond me but we managed to. Just like our first dinner last January in Barcelona, this one presented a lesson in small-worldedness. Our waitress was from Brazil, we spoke Spanish with her and just for fun I jazzed mine up with a bit of Chinese. The food was great and the glass of Tempranillo went a long way to helping us forget the fact that we’d just spent 29 hours getting here.

The evening ended with a nice walk back to the hotel arriving just in time to see an almost full moon rising over the top of the row houses.



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