The recent horrible incident where passengers were kept on an airplane for a 12-hour travel delay from Kansas City to Los Angeles got me thinking about my worst travel experience ever several years ago when I was trying to get to a big race in Florida. It was a doozy of a storm, and challenged my wits as well as my stamina.
When I booked my flight to Pensacola for the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway, I seriously thought choosing an airline that had a connecting flight which avoided Atlanta was a good thing. Unfortunately, I connected in Dallas, which put me right into the middle of the eye of the epic ice storm.
We ALMOST made it out of Dallas, before all hell broke loose. The delay began with a flight attendant that didn’t show up, so we had to wait for a backup to show, but then the merry-go-round of delays began. Long lines of planes waiting to get de-iced prior to take off, constipated our forward progress. On the second attempt to leave, a push-car, which is the vehicle that pushes the plane back away from the gate, had a dead battery, so that caused another delay. Then the government got involved because the de-icing process had a lot of overspray that was landing on some new construction at the airport.
Yes, a government agency was also part of our delay. Actually, many of the delays for the planes to get out of Dallas. They halted the entire de-icing process for ALL planes, until they could figure out where to move the de-icing area to for the planes that was safe. As you might imagine, the government decision-makers didn’t exactly come to a quick resolution on that matter. Imagine that?
Bottom line is, after three separate boarding and deplaning efforts for this flight from Dallas to Pensacola, they ended up pulling the pin on the flight and canceling it shortly after 11pm. Six hours past the original take-off time.
A call to the airline customer service department, as soon as I heard we were not going to make it to Pensacola, landed me on the next available flight there the following day, with a scheduled departure in the early afternoon. Not exactly ideal, given the race festivities were already underway, but what could I do?
The hotel essentially attached to the airport was plumb full. A call to various hotels in close proximity revealed they were full too. I decided to drop the hammer and go to get a rental car and just drive it. I was frustrated.
I waited for the car rental shuttle to come around for about 15 minutes in the icy cold. I ended up being the only passenger on the big shuttle bus and I was lost in my thoughts. Should I be trying to drive this potentially 10-hour trek at midnight, given that I had been up since 3:30am? The frustration of the situation was just spilling over and I was becoming convinced that I could do it, mostly just to get the hell out of Dallas.
It was then that I was jolted out of my thoughts—literally. The shuttle bus had been rear ended by another shuttle bus for a hotel. I can’t make this stuff up; the situation was spiraling out of control.
Sitting helpless on the shuttle bus, while we waited for the police and another shuttle to come and take me to the car rental office was my breaking point. I realized then that I was in absolutely NO condition to drive 10 hours to Pensacola, let alone through a monster ice storm that had engulfed the entire Dallas-Fort Worth area.
I was insane, if I thought I could drive 10 hours to Pensacola after being awake for nearly 21 hours already. Upon reaching the car rental counter, I instead requested a phone number for a taxi. One of the slick guys behind said counter, hand wrote the number of his friend, who would “take good care of me.”
I’ll be honest here. That gave me the willies and not in a good way. Cold, tired and desperate, I dialed the number anyway.
“Hello?” he answered in his deep, thick-accented voice.
“Hi, I was given your name as a taxi driver to get a ride to…”
“I’m not working now,” and CLICK, he hung up on me!
All I could do at this point was to laugh like a maniacal idiot inside of the rental car building. Through the tears of insanity, rolling down my face, I spotted a taxi outside, as if it were waiting for me. I dashed out there to find a man and a woman, bound for a hotel. The two, who were strangers themselves, both on a plane bound for Oklahoma City were in the middle of the same situation as myself. Flight cancelled with few options. Only, they actually attempted to rent a car, but the person behind the counter said they could not take debit cards, only credit cards. And apparently, despite their debit card having the obvious logo of Visa on it—they were refused service. I felt for them. I shared my story of getting rear-ended on the shuttle bus and we all reveled in a kindred spirit of hatred toward the Dallas situation.
The cab ride was harrowing. When we finally arrived at the hotel, we found that it was perched on a steep incline, not suitable for navigating during an ice storm, but our cabbie was a real sport and gave it all he had. By God, we made it up the driveway and slid to a stop in front of the entry way, where we piled out and tumbled into the hotel, with our bodies about to give out on us.
The clock struck almost 1:15am when the hotel front desk man greeted us. He informed us that he only had one room left and it was the Jacuzzi suite. Lovely! He then announced that it would run us a whopping $109 for the “night.”
This was the point where I lost my marbles. I have no idea how I remained calm, but I did. I shared a euphemism about several things having been shoved sideways where they didn’t belong, repeatedly within the past 8 hours and pretty much begged him to have mercy on three complete strangers who were willing to share a room—not for a night, but for a mere few hours, before we all had to hightail it back to the airport in the hopes of getting to our final destinations or fork out more money for a rental car that would cost far more than it should.
When I finished my little speech, he stood there slack-jawed and said, “I’ve never heard a situation described quite like that before. I’ll give you guys the room for $69.”
It was a small victory in a day that had quickly developed into the equivalent of any Minnesota Vikings’ football season.
I took a shower and put the same clothes back on, as that was all I had with me, because my husband took my suitcase with him in the race car hauler on Monday to Pensacola. (He also drove through a car wash with said suitcase in the open bed of his pickup, before leaving, but in the whole scheme of things, I guess that’s pretty minor now.)
I set up a text alert for my new flight to Pensacola before trying to sleep. Sleep was a fruitless effort. It is doubtful that I grabbed more than an hour and a half of actual sleep before I heard my cellphone vibrate with a text at 6am.
It was from American Airlines, letting me know that my new flight for Pensacola that afternoon had now also been cancelled. That was it. I needed to get to the car rental office and get driving NOW.
I asked the front desk if they were able to call a taxi for me. Nope, they don’t do that, but they did give me the phone number to call myself, which I tried. I was on hold for 15 minutes and then a couple and another man, approached the front desk and they too inquired about a cab.
I spoke up and asked if they were interested in sharing a cab, as I was in the process of getting one. They all brushed me off and while I’m not a racist, I certainly felt the disdain they directed at me, through their narrowed eyes in their olive-colored faces.
Whatever. I gave up on sitting on hold and called the taxi service back, noting the app they had for getting a taxi, as being the “fastest way to get a taxi.” And they were right. I received a phone call to my cell about 2 minutes after booking it online.
The female taxi driver said she was about 10-minutes out from the hotel. I ventured outside and assessed the situation. I had forgotten about the steep hill access to the joint and I was wearing slick-soled, cowboy boots. Ugh. I ventured back inside and asked the front desk if I could have a garbage bag. They obliged.
Then my Christian heart turned to black. I spotted one of the rude taxi-seekers in the lobby, on the phone, trying to get through to get a ride. I considered inviting him to share my cab, but that consideration really only lasted approximately three seconds, as I dashed out the front door, leaving him to twist in his own frustration.
I called the cab lady back and discovered she was minutes away, so I told her to wait for me at the foot of the driveway, as it’s steep and completely covered in ice. I would come to her.
As I saw her approach, I folded the garbage bag into a big square. I placed it on the ice, sat down and put my backpack on my lap, before shoving off, sliding down the icy hill to the road.
When I climbed into the cab, my driver was laughing so hard, she could hardly speak. She said she had never witnessed anything like that before and it made her day. Because of that, she was only going to charge me a flat $20 for the ride, as we started toward the airport.
Within a matter of minutes, her in-car service device pinged, letting her know someone else was in need of a ride… from the same hotel. I knew who it was immediately. I asked her if we had to turn around to get the person. She informed me that no way was she going to do that, after the effort I put forth to get to the rental car place! My smile was far too-pleased as we continued to crawl toward the airport, knowing that Mr. Rude was going to have to sit there and wait for at least another half hour. I gave my cabbie a $10 tip, trying to make up for my horrible thoughts regarding the other fare she was headed back to get.
It took 45 minutes to get my rental car. Mostly because I was tired of feeling completely screwed over by businesses who wanted to capitalize on all of the displaced travelers. I had a discount code for 15% that I had used when I booked my original reservation for a car in Pensacola. They couldn’t just “give me” the discount, as I had to book it myself online to take advantage of it.
So, there I stood at the counter, working on my cellphone, trying to book the rental with the discount. After repeated attempts with failing cell service, I finally just called their corporate offices. It took some serious cajoling and selling on my part, but I convinced the guy to help me book it over the phone, so I could get the discount. Going one-way with a rental car is a losing proposition for any traveler, so I was already getting boned on the deal. No sense adding insult to injury, right?
Finally, by 9:30am, I was prying the ice-clad rental vehicle open to begin the 10 hour drive. It was the last compact car in their fleet. There were only a handful of vehicles remaining for all of the car rental places from what I saw.
As I handed the lady at the gate my paperwork, she issued a huge warning to me to reconsider driving to Pensacola. I wanted to tell her to shut the hell up and that I was from Wisconsin–this is NOTHING, but instead I just smiled and said, “Bless your heart.”
And away I crept–45 miles-per-hour through the city, which resembled a graveyard of smashed vehicles along the road, askew in ditches. All makes and models, including three trucks–a Ford, a Dodge and a Chevy. One of them had a ripped up front end, due to impact from the guardrail. There were several other cars along the road, spun out and abandoned and even a couple of semi trucks too. I continued to crawl along, praying to get to Pensacola in one piece.
It took a total of three hours of driving to get out of the freezing rain. I cheered every time the outside temperature gauge read another degree over 32, as that meant a safer trek. God Bless Texas. They have a speed limit of 75 on the open highway, which was a beautiful thing, once the freezing rain was no longer an issue!
It rained almost the entire trip. I hate driving in the rain, but I hate driving in relentless hours of it worse. I found some joy as I went through Monroe, Louisiana and spotted a billboard for Willie Robertson’s diner. If I hadn’t been in such a rush to get to Pensacola, I surely would’ve stalked Jase from Duck Dynasty in West Monroe!
Time seemed to fly and surprisingly, despite not having enjoyed much sleep for nearly 48 hours, I was not tired, as I piloted the Toyota to Florida. It had been estimated to be a bit over ten hours for the drive, but I pulled into Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola just around nine and half hours; and that included two stops for fuel!
And the moral of the story is: Watch the weather, keep the phone numbers of the airlines and car rental places programmed in your phone and have a “Plan B” ready to roll, so you don’t get burned.
Well, that, or just enjoy the adventure, but make sure you have a sense of humor. You’ll need it!