Travel Mishaps Part 1: Life Lessons From Six Days Stranded at LAX
Some of our best mishaps to date, such as these first two, have been quite costly, tiring, and traumatic. I hope to share more of our more notable foibles in a short series on the embaressing, but possibly helpful topic. Our blunders so far have all been at least somewhat offset by good luck on the same trips, but they were all at least somewhat avoidable, or at least would turn out differently if they happened again.
Six Days Stranded in LAX
At the end of my first year with Lyme disease (still two years away from diagnosis) I found myself temporarily out of work, while lawyers untangled the unusual disability loop hole I had fallen through. I was fighting not to be put on disability, and the system imploded, escalating things to the federal level and leaving me without a paycheck while they sorted it out. Since this wasn’t stressful enough, I found some pretty amazing ways to make things worse.
I decided that since, a) I could travel standby anywhere for free through my husband’s job, and b) I wasn’t going to overcome an unfathomable federal=level legal stale mate in the foreseeable future, the kids and I would fly to Hawaii and stay with a friend in Oahu and desperately search every good sea turtle spot we’d read about until we saw them.
We were new to standby travel and still learning the rules and pitfalls. However, no level of experience would have caused us to anticipate a global shutdown impacting thousands of travelers world-wide, leaving two kids and an ill mother stranded at LAX for six miserable days.
Waikiki & Sea Turtles
The Up-Side of Being Stranded in an Airport
This was definitely a memorable experience. We had a lot of fun and mini-adventures, and my kids' attitudes were great pretty much the entire time. I couldn't have been prouder. We were all a bit grumpy when we repeatedly got two seats for the three of us. But it would be silly to force a five year old to enjoy a feeling like that.
1. The Primary "Life Lesson"
At the end of our second day, waiting in the help line to get rolled over to the next flight, my son was visibly working hard to hold back the tears. He tried to say something to me and started sobbing instead. A number of people saw and responded, many in their third, fourth, or fifth day stuck (there was a ripple effect happening that didn't affect us until we got to LAX from San Francisco).
One such on-looker showed Christopher (my son, who was five at the time) a picture on his phone. It was his newborn son, born that day. Many people cried at that point. He traveled to see his first son graduate high school, with a fairly safe margin before his wife's due date. But he'd been stuck several days and had missed the birth of his second son back on Oahu.
This perspective-resetting moment resonated completely with both kids. Although we were very sad at most likely not getting to see Sea turtles (or to get home in the foreseeable future) and tired of being stuck, it obviously didn't compare to this new dad's situation. All of the down-sides of this entire experience, in the end, were trumped by the impact that moment had on my kids.
2. Community and Empathy
In addition to the instance above, there was a strong sense community, camaraderie, and support among the hundreds of travelers trying for the same flights. People helped each other with food runs for the families with small kids and my kids were spoiled with chicken nuggets.
The new dad was also an actor and had been a radio announcer. He made amazing character voices as he read books to the stranded kids. His Lightning McQueen voice was amazing and stopped passers by in their steps.
3. Learning Curve
We definitely jump-started our learning curve for standby travel. This experience saved us time and money on every trip there after.
4. Novelty and Fun
- My kids were amused with the airport and the shuttles and as the days wore on, things like sugar packets from coffee stands were a silly and hard earned treat. In the end, it wasn’t more sugar than a cookie, it was free, and they upped their already good travel behavior to earn it.
- A very good friend doing field work a couple of hours away drove up to see us at the end of a full day of work, bringing us wonderful healthy foods that helped get through the rest of our LAX days.
- One of the days there we weren't as stuck. Flights looked horrible and we were exhausted. So we went to Disneyland to look at the shops. We couldn't afford to go in, but the idea of the Lego store and the novelty of downtown Disney seemed worth it. We had fun that day and forgot briefly why we were where we were. We also heard from the new dad, who had made it home to his baby.
5. The End Result--Waikiki & Sea Turtles
You may see Lyme disease and sea turtles pop in travel articles regarding some of our travel the last few years. Before I knew I had Lyme, my illness made traveling hard, but illness was a big driver in my strange and sudden obsession with seeing a Sea turtle in 2011.
When we finally gave up and tried to go home, it was far harder to get to Kalispell, Montana (Glacier National Park in June) than Honolulu. We tried one more Honolulu flight and made it.
Our first day in Waikiki, I was too sick to rent a car to go look for turtles. We walked to the Waikiki and amidst hundreds of people, turtles came to where we were, and we saw our first ever turtles our first day (which you can read more about in Part 2).
The Down Side of Being Stranded in an Airport
The up-sides of that miserable week outweigh the down sides, but I'm not in any hurry for this to ever happen again!
We spent a fortune on hotels. Not to mention food, coffee, and the shuttle fiasco described below. The week in Hawaii was far less expensive than LAX.
These were among the hardest days of my four year illness, primarily due to the stress and long days.
LAX was being renovated, leading to a LOT of extra walking. Sometimes through extremely long tunnels, back and forth between quick turnaround flights. Because it was not their usual flow of traffic, this meant staircases with kids and luggage, which I was not nearly healthy enough for at the time.
3. Increased Imposition
I was too sick to rent a car in Hawaii once we got there, making us a bigger burden on my friend. We had told my friend we were not coming and then we weren’t able to tell him otherwise until we were there.
4. LAX Aversion
I remember pieces of the detours when I travel through LAX and it's not a happy place to be. There are also a few gates with particularly bad memories, where I dread having to wait for a flight. I avoid LAX if at all possible.
I found out later that if rules had been applied properly by more than one airline's LA staff, we would have made it out on three or more of the flights we tried each day. One flight in particular listed us as approved (which we couldn't see due to renovations and no screens), but I had been told to sit down and not worry when I checked with the gate agent and was not called for the flight (and wrongly told a second time that we weren't on the list).
5. Death of a Laptop
Somewhere in our 6 days of security check ins, I heard someone yell as I left the screening area. As I turned around to face the security officer, warning me that my bag was open, the weight of my laptop forced the whole front of my backpack open, sending my laptop crashing to the floor. It never woke up from a recovery screen, despite desperate attempts at each hotel.
6. Unhappiest Shuttle to the Happiest Place on Earth
The fun day at Downtown Disney backfired. I took the cost answer of the curb side employee as the actual cost. The money is not collected until you reach your destination. Rather than the non-frugal $24 I had braced myself for, I was forced to hand over $82. There was no sympathy from the employees or the other families on the shuttle, inconvenienced by my hesitation to pay and get on with it. I wasn't able to set a terribly great example for my kids. Except that rather than raising my voice or being snide, I told them I would give them their money, they just needed to give me a minute and come back to me.
- Be familiar with airline policies
- Have a strategy for changing flights
- Bring food and snacks
- Don't pass up convenient meals
- Practice with travel sites to save time & money
- Back up your data if you bring your laptop
- Bring an external drive of some kind to backup data & photos while you travel
- Be very cautious at the shuttle pickup area at LAX
- Don't rely on curb side shuttle information that you can't verify
A lot of that trip's troubles were due to circumstances beyond our control. Though, as noted earlier, I could have at least tried to be more forceful about the rules I didn't feel they were following.
Though even if I'd had more certainty, it's very likely it wouldn't have made a difference. I heard later from multiple standby families that certain airlines were misapplying several critical rules, particularly regarding kids and whether they could be seated separately from parents and whether or not they could be in first class (the primary factor keeping us off of planes we should have been on).
I was also overwhelmed by the number of flights to choose from on a daily basis and was too flustered to organize our options. My husband has since devised a printout where we can jot down flights and flight loads each time we look at options. Otherwise, there's not way to remember everything that's available.
Several of these lessons helped us on future trips, and in the case of flight delays, cancelled flights, and unforeseen catastrophes, there are certainly applicable beyond standby.
- Learn as much as you can before traveling about standby or regular fare policies, so you have at least a general idea of what your options are.
- Have a back-home go-to to help you check flights and change plans quickly in an emergency (in a case like ours, hundreds of people could be competing for seats and band-width).
- Carry light weight but hardy back-up foods and snacks. Start your first flight with a good meal. If it's super early, don't be afraid to pack it to come with you on the plane.
- Pay attention to food options as you change flights, and when in doubt, don't pass up an affordable, convenient, packable meal between flights. You never know for sure when your next chance will be.
- Practice finding cheap last minute hotel rooms in advance of a trip. You can save a lot of time and money through familiarity with different travel sites, but you can get burned if you aren't used to the features and pitfalls, so find one you like and practice.