Travel Woes and Obnoxious Optimism

Travel Woes and Obnoxious Optimism sounds like the title of a book.  A pretentious one I can only assume. Anyways, it’s merely the theme of my travel last weekend.  I want to share with you some travel lessons I learned, in story format.

With less than a year of full time work under my belt, I am still figuring out how to incorporate travel into my schedule best.  It was so much easier in school when we had a week off here…a Christmas holiday there…a week between mods/quarters…a few weeks before or after summer jobs and commitments.

One of my bffs (I know best means one, but screw convention, bffs make life amazing so I am going to have several) mentioned to me she was headed to Birmingham for the President’s Day weekend to visit her sister. Our corporate holiday calendar changed a few days for 2014 and to my surprise I had that Monday off.  Each day prior to a full holiday we are given a half day, so that meant I only needed to take a half day vacation to make it into a four day weekend.

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My first 5k! Proud to run as Iron Man.  A strained Achilles kept me from making great time, but what a milestone still for a “non-jogger.”

The trip itself was a lot of fun (Superhero 5K, sightseeing, mega church, puppies, babies at the park, good southern food, driving in the country and time to simply talk) but not something to blog about.  Oh no, the exciting part of this trip was getting there and getting back.  Like I said earlier, I’d like to share my woes and some travel tips I picked up!

I knew my trip was coming up, and we had an epic snow storm that started Wednesday afternoon and continued all day Thursday, enough to force me to take a snow day from work.  I knew I had to get to the airport late Friday morning, so every time I looked out the window and saw big, heavy flakes coming down I muttered curses at no one in particular.

There's supposed to be a road there. P.S.  Sorry for screen window shot.  I wasn't planning to make this a blog.

There’s supposed to be a road there.
P.S. Sorry for screen window shot. I wasn’t planning to make this a blog.

Friday morning came and surprisingly my flight was still on schedule.  I got ready, checking out the front window a few too many times along the way.  I watched as my neighbor’s SUV got stuck in the shared driveway.  He started shoveling it out.  I figured that could be a good thing…he’d get the snow moved.

Once I was ready to leave, I opened my garage door and what I thought was 4-5 inches of snow in my driveway looked more like 2 feet. I had planned on just backing out of my driveway through the more manageable 4 inches.  CRAP.

I didn’t have a shovel.  I realized it was either dig this snow out or don’t go on vacation.  So I got to scooping, with a dust pan.  A maintenance guy was passing by and helped me dig out a 2 foot wide path.  He assumed I wanted to walk somewhere (not sure where I’d be going…) not back out my entire car.  He had to move on to more important things than my driveway (completely understood) but at least he put a dent in the snow.  I asked him if he had another shovel and he mentioned my neighbor had one sitting on her porch.  I trudged through the 2 feet of snow to her porch and was ecstatic to have a shovel.  I immediately got to work.  I had a flight to catch.

Fortunately the snow was fluffy so shoveling wasn’t terribly bad.  Tip #1:  Always give yourself extra time to get to the airport on bad weather days.  You never know what will happen.  About 30 minutes later I had my driveway cleared out but realized the shared driveway still wasn’t great.  Would I have to shovel that too?  At that exact moment the neighborhood plow was headed up the street.  I think he noticed I was trying to dig myself out so he started on my shared driveway first.  As soon as he finished I had to decide: go or no go?  I put in so much work to get this far I couldn’t quit.  Vacation was waiting.  And I figured there’s no better time to get stuck in my driveway than when somebody was nearby to help push me out…

I flipped the switch to AWD on my car and backed out of my driveway.  My original plan was to turn around so I could exit the shared driveway going forward but that was not going to happen with the massive piles of snow on either side of my driveway.  Miraculously I was able to back into the street without getting stuck.

My neighborhood was only one lane wide due to all the snow and I carefully headed for the main road.  My tires slipped a few times but I built up enough speed to get up the main hill.

It’s a 45 minute drive to the airport on I81, which is accident and traffic prone, but I made it there, passing only a few icy patches on the way (scary icy patches, that is.)  When I reached the airport there hadn’t been any inbound or outbound flights in two days so the entire parking lot of cars was snowed in, strangely eerie to see.  As I made my way to the long term parking lot I saw dozens of cars parked in numerous locations not meant for parking.  It reminded me of post-apocalypse imagery from movies, seeing things abandoned and a general loss of structure.  As I walked from my car to the airport I wanted to shout and raise my hand in the air; I was so excited I made it!

Once I boarded my flight it was amazing to see how happy people at the airport could be.  We were officially the first flight to leave in two days, so everybody was grateful just to be able to leave.  Nothing could rain on our parades!  Tip #2: Always be grateful.  Flying is a privilege.  Things can and will go wrong, and you just have to be glad you’ll get there eventually.  I had a relaxing layover in O’Hare and made it to my final destination, amazed the whole time that I made it.

The return trip…oh man, now that’s where everything fell apart.  I got to the Birmingham airport that morning to see my second flight had been canceled.  Surprise!  Neither United’s automated phonecall nor their e-mail had come through…  Fortunately I had already been rescheduled on a later flight, however my 3 hour layover was now over 8 hours.  I could deal though – if you’re going to be stuck at an airport, O’Hare is not a bad one. I immediately bought an overpriced book, magazine and headphones and I was ready for the day.  Tip #3: Always have a book, music or puzzles on hand.  If you don’t have any, it’s worth the steep markup to buy them.

The O'Hare runway when we landed.  Looking back I am impressed we didn't end up sliding off the runway.

The O’Hare runway when we landed. Looking back I am impressed we didn’t end up sliding off the runway.

When my first flight landed we definitely slid for the first several seconds of landing.  I knew that did not bode well.  After I exited the plane I found a good location to spend an hour to relax before lunch.  Tip #4: Gonna be a while?  You don’t have to stick it out at your gate.  Or even your terminal.  Find somewhere quiet where you can spread out a little. Bonus: find a seat by an outlet.  You’ll be glad you did.

For lunch I headed to the Terminal C food court. It was a little walk to get there, but the moving sidewalks allowed me to relax.  Tip #5: If you’re stuck at the airport for several hours you’re clearly not in a hurry, so you might as well take your time, which might help you de-stress.  Instead of walking, I stood at the side of the moving sidewalk (so others could pass) and just soaked in the odd installed art and music.  My stress levels dropped.

Tip #6: Turn mealtime into a relaxing ritual.  I bought a Coke Zero from McDonalds and a personal pan Chicago-style pizza from a different vendor, and drug them to the food court.  I sat and listened to music while I ate. I pulled out my magazine. I checked Facebook.  I played games on my phone.  It was a welcome retreat from the busier parts of the airport.  It helped me to pass probably a good hour of my time.

After eating I headed back to find a quiet chair and outlet again, and went back reading on my book.  This leads me to Tip #7: Move around.  Sitting in one spot for an hour or two is good, but five or six hours…not so much.  Once your phone is back to 100%, get up, go into a store, buy a tea, look out the window, just do something.

Eventually the time for my evening flight approached so I set up camp at my actual gate.  We started out with a 15 minute delay.  No big deal.  However, as boarding time for our new departure time approached I looked up at the video monitor.  Delayed again.  Just another 10 minutes this time.  Shortly, the delay launched our departure time back again by 20 minutes.  And then another 15.  I kept holding my breath.  Soon.  Soon we’d leave and I could just focus on my 45 minute drive back.

I looked up.  Suddenly Halifax was on our video board.  Uh oh.  Before they even had a chance to make an announcement I marched over to the United service counter.  A line already was forming from the many other flights being cancelled that night.  O’Hare was pretty much shut down.

With no other choice I took a spot in line, and moments later a woman came around passing out slips of paper with a special hotline.  She urged us to call, since it could be at least a 45 minute wait in line.  I really wanted to speak with someone face-to-face, but I figured I could call while I waited in the line.  I’m glad I did.  Apparently I had already been rebooked for an additional two flights the next day.  Again…no phone call or e-mail but at least I didn’t have to wait in line!  Tip #8:  Listen to the people that work at the airline.  They kinda know what they’re doing.

I headed down to exit the airport and picked up another magazine on the way out, just in case I needed it the next day.  In picking my hotel, I probably could have done a better job and gotten something a little cheaper, but I went with Embassy Suites mostly because they had a) continental breakfast, b) a gym, and c) most importantly, an airport shuttle (the taxi line was long.)  So Tip #9: Know what amenities you really want in a crashing-for-the-night hotel.  Don’t be picky, spending an extra $20 can go a long way.  Something as simple as not having to go out for breakfast can really improve your morning.

I headed over to the shuttle hub, of course right as the Hilton/Double Tree/Embassy shuttle left.  I waited patiently for the next one and as soon as it arrived I bet over 50 people tried to cram into that little shuttle. Tip #10: Shared hotel shuttles fill up faster.  Be warned.  I don’t know how but I lucked out and got a seat on the shuttle…half sitting on my suitcase…but on the shuttle nonetheless.  I think the guy sitting next to me was losing feeling in his legs with a giant suitcase teetering on his lap, and my foot was definitely poking into the woman sitting next to me.

The windows were frosted up and we couldn’t see where we were going, making the ride seem longer as we couldn’t see our hotel in the distance.  As we cruised along, George Michael’s Faith quietly played over the speakers and the dark shuttle remained silent.  Everybody was exhausted and in the same situation as me.  Tip #11: Remember, you’re not the only one having a rough travel experience.  Be patient.

Check-in was quick and I made it to my room, feeling flustered but beginning to relax.  I laughed at the completely unnecessary conference table in my room, but was happy to have a place to sleep.

You can bet I sat by that man-made waterfall while I enjoyed my morning coffee.

You can bet I sat by that man-made waterfall while I enjoyed my morning coffee.   And enjoy it I did.

Tip #12: Enjoy the little things, sometimes that’s all you’ve got.  I took a long shower and went straight to bed.  I needed to get up in time to squeeze in a workout and catch the end of the continental breakfast!  I tried to really enjoy the fact that regardless of what was happening, I had the chance to treat myself with a long workout and a leisurely breakfast, including post-breakfast coffee.  Had it been a normal Tuesday morning I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.  Another long shower later I repacked my suitcase.

Oh, and that brings me to my next tip.  Tip #13:  Valet/green tag bags are the way to go.  I’ve learned if my trip is less than a week, it’s best to pack a small suitcase and a bag instead of checking luggage. (The small suitcase needs to fit in an overhead compartment.) Often there isn’t room for the small suitcase, but they will take your suitcase right before you board the plane and return it as you exit the plane.  I heard several people complaining at the airport the night before that their luggage was in the city they were trying to get to.  Green tag bags don’t have the problem, they are always in the same location as you are.  It was wonderful to have both pieces of my luggage with me this whole time.  If you can’t do a valet bag, at least keep some essentials in your carry on bag, like contact solution, deodorant and fresh socks.

I headed back to O’Hare on the courtesy shuttle and repeated the same process as the day before, making good progress in my book and enjoying another round of airport food.  Unfortunately in my flight rebooking I didn’t get a direct flight home.  I had to connect in DC first.  Ugh.  By the time my first flight of the day landed my positive attitude was beginning to feel strained. A little Chipotle made me feel better (Tip #14: some junk food is enjoyable, but a semi-nutritious meal will help more when you’re feeling run down.)  Soon enough it was time to board for my final flight – home was within reach!  Now DC Dulles is one odd airport, many of their gates have up to 6 planes boarding/leaving from them within the span of an hour.  I was convinced I would get on the wrong plane but fortunately each one had the correct sign lit up outside the plane.  As I sat on the last flight of the day I had an empty seat next to me.  I secretly hoped it would remain open, and it did.  Tip #15:  Until the plane door is closed, just assume that empty seat next to you will be taken.  Nothing hurts more than having to move your jacket from the seat as it is claimed.

Bonus tip: The best seat in the world only exists on small planes.  It’s what I like to call the “Holy Grail” which is the seat that is both window and aisle.  If you get this seat you win at flying for the day, no questions asked.

To conclude, they say travel expands the mind.  I believe travel is important because it gives us a chance to leave our context – the things we normally have in our lives that define what we are.  Our friends. Our jobs. Our hobbies. Our homes. Without those influences we can see who we really are.  I was reminded this trip that I am an extremely positive person, making the most of every situation. It was a rough two days but I managed to find myself enjoying myself at least 75% of the time. I’m proud of the way I handled my two crappy days, and I think my attitude really helped me get through!  I also may have realized this is a character trait I am now going to insist upon in future dating relationships…

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