Three Days, Four Drink Vouchers: A Travel Nightmare

So first of all, two disclaimers: one, usually I exaggerate the absurdity of things that happen to me, but what follows is a thoroughly un-enhanced edition of a travel nightmare.  Two, this is not at all related to medicine.

I’ve just returned to my home in the Southeast after a ski trip in Lake Tahoe. The voyage back from Tahoe took three days, and is a story unto itself.

My trip back home started with a drive down from Tahoe to visit my grandma, who lives in Sacramento and promises that she reads all of my blog posts. This brings my devoted viewership to a grand total of about seven. It’s very exciting to be so widely read.

Anyway, the plan was to lunch in Sacramento, then drive to the airport to hop on planes to various locations (the four of us were all going to different destinations). Our ski party, consisting of my roommate Ryan, aka The Ragemonster,* my friend Christina, and her friend Kat, was about twenty minutes from chowing down on some Whole Foods sandwiches courtesy of Grandma when I got a text: my Southwest flight from Phoenix to home was canceled due to weather.

The-Mountain*Ryan’s nickname in the med school is Ragemonster, because when engaged in competitive sports he will unavoidably change from a conscientious, reasoned medical student into a horrifying splicing experiment between Mr. Hyde and The Mountain from Game of Thrones.

I was mostly prepared for this: the weather had forecasted a massive ice storm to blanket the Southeast, and my state deals with prolonged ice accumulations about as well as Napoleon and Hitler did.

(Putting that Peace, War and Defense major to good use today!! See, NCAA? UNC taught me stuff, even though it never bothered with the football team.)

Luckily for me, I also inherited my mother’s travel genes: I am usually calm and polite to staff and others when bad things happen traveling. I understand that it is hard, especially when hundreds of irate people in line are yelling at you. This stands in stark contrast to Papa Friedman, who has on multiple occasions entered such a Hulk-level fury that gate agents have requested the presence of a police officer. Again, this is not hyperbole.

Anyway. While driving, I called Southwest – yes, it’s illegal in California, shut up – and got ahold of Paula. Paula rescheduled my trip to route through Denver instead of Phoenix, because the flight from Denver to home was still going.

I figured that flight would cancel too and it was just a matter of time. In all, though, it would be better to be stuck overnight in Denver’s airport – a Southwest hub with a great food court and multiple access points to Chipotle – rather than Phoenix.

Plus, I’d be on the same flight out of Sacramento as Ragemonster, which was a big plus: if someone called for a doctor and there weren’t any on the plane, Ragemonster would definitely volunteer to help as I instead hid under the tray table.

While in the air to Denver, the second leg of my flight predictably canceled. OK, we expected that, no problem. I’ll reschedule when we land.

When we deplaned, I headed to an empty ticket counter and talked to the gate agent, named Sam. Sam sympathetically told me that all flights from Denver to my hometown were booked clear through two days later, and my only remaining option – only! – was to go to Houston tonight and grab the last seat on a 6:45AM flight home the next morning.

The catch, according to Sam, was that it is currently the rodeo in Houston. I mean, THE RODEO.  I soon learned that The Rodeo is apparently THE big deal in the world of “everyone who owns a cowboy hat,” because every single hotel room in Houston is booked for three full weeks in March. Basically, Sam said, I would be sleeping in the airport.

That was fine with me. I rebooked for Houston. Sam gave me a drink voucher. This will become a theme later.

“Oh, what about my bags?”

“They’ll be placed on the first direct flight to Nashville tomorrow. They’ll probably beat you there,” Sam replied.

While waiting for my third rescheduled flight of the day – to Houston – to board, I casually checked out to see if I could find a room. Just for kicks.

Sure enough, basically everyone was full. Except… hmmm. Here’s a room for sixty bucks at a place near the airport called the Hobby Airport Inn. Two out of five stars. How bad could it be?

Now in possession of a hotel booking, I wanted to reroute my bags so I could brush my teeth and change when I landed (I stupidly broke the cardinal rule of traveling without a spare change of clothes in my carryon). I checked with the agent at the gate, and it turns out that… oh, no one knows where my bags are. They have disappeared from the system entirely.

Okay. So I’m sleeping in my clothes tonight. No big deal. Plus, the agent gave me a drink voucher for my troubles.

I landed in Houston, walked out into the cold rain, and got a cab. “To the Hobby Airport Inn,” I said triumphantly, gleeful in my ninja-like discount hotel room sleuthing.

We pulled up two minutes later to a building that resembled a self-storage facility or potentially an illegal chop shop. I got out and the cab pulled away, leaving me very thoroughly alone. On the door to the lobby was a note written in, I swear, purple crayon: “LOBBY CLOSED PLEASE USE NIGHT DESK.”

The night desk nearby was a Plexiglass window of the variety most often associated with a high-crime-area gas station. “Can I help you?” said the clerk. She was wearing a denim suit.

I showed her my reservation on my phone. Her eyes got big and she said, “oh, shit.”

That can’t be good.

I stood outside for twenty minutes, in the rain, while the clerk roused her manager and they tried to sort out my booking. They had accepted the online booking without actually having a room available. It turns out that on top of the rodeo, the entire construction staff for the new Hobby Houston airport is being housed at the Hobby Airport Inn and the equally ramshackle EconoLodge next door.

“Do you know anywhere else that has availability? Or how I can get my money back?” I asked, now obviously pissed.

“Nope.” The clerk smacked her gum and walked away.

Well damn, this was going well. (Also, I did not get a drink voucher, which I think is the official “I’m sorry” card of all travel-related businesses.)

I pulled out my phone and opened Maps, saw a handful of motels along the access road where I was now stranded, and started walking.

In the rain. Alone. At night. With only a Kindle, a broken phone charger, and some chap stick in my backpack. Yeah, my phone charger broke. I don’t want to talk about it.

I generally don’t get nervous when I travel, but if there was an underground illegal kidney harvesting organization in Houston, I would have encountered it that night. After walking a couple of dark miles to ask at every hotel I could find – and calling ones I could see off in the distance – I gave up and called a cab to go back to the airport.

Of course, once I got back to the airport I had nowhere to go, so I sat in the check-in area. It turned out that the bulk of the aforementioned construction on the new terminal took place at night and in the check-in area. Tonight’s activities included jackhammering and literally dynamiting cement walls. I am not exaggerating. Dynamite.

Needless to say, I didn’t get a lot of sleep.

The next morning, a bedraggled, grumpy and fairly smelly version of me went back through security. At the gate, I checked Twitter and the news to guess my chances of getting out of Houston.

My town was handling the ice storm as expected: it was a total disaster. Two major highways were closed. On one, a tractor-trailer jackknifed and spilled, ironically, thousands of pounds of road salt. Thousands of cars were stuck long enough to run out of gas. One person died, probably from a rage-induced aneurysm.

My flight from Houston was delayed, delayed again, and finally canceled. As soon as it canceled, I got back in another long line to reschedule. I recognized too many faces from Denver. One man had actually snagged a room at the Hobby Aiport Inn a few hours before me. He said the floor wasn’t level, that he slept in sweatpants atop the sheets, and that he caught a mouse with the trash can soon after turning out the lights. Also the ceiling leaked.

So maybe the dynamite and jackhammering option was actually better? #glasshalffull

After giving me another drink voucher (we’re at three now), Betsy from Southwest listed my choices.

Option 1: Fly to Birmingham, split a car rental with two men behind me in line – an emotionally labile Chinese businessman in his forties and his confused, never-been-on-a-plane-before father (it made no sense to me either, stay with me) – then drive the nominal three hours to my hometown in a blinding ice storm that had already killed 4 motorists. Also, the businessman insisted on driving because he “is more experienced.”

He was originally from San Jose and has never seen snow outside of a ski resort and on television.

Option 2: Wait a day, fly out tomorrow.

I went with Option 2. My desire to get home did not include driving in whiteout conditions with a dangerously unstable patio furniture salesman.* And his dad. It sounded like suicide either way – we’d either crash or I would defenestrate myself en route.

*Seriously. Not making this up. There was a patio furniture sales convention in town they were desperately trying to make.

Rebooked for the first flight out next morning, I started calling hotels. Thankfully, this time there was space available at the Marriott – a real hotel, not a Criminal Minds episode waiting to happen. I booked my second hotel room in Houston.

Then I had to find my bags. I went down to baggage claim to show my tags to the customer service person down there. She looked at my tags and could not understand why they said SACRAMENTO->PHOENIX->[hometown] without Houston listed.

mETHg2nHwl678TYWf3dDyyQThirty minutes of monologue later, she finally understood the saga I had endured. First she gave me yet another drink voucher. Then she looked up my bags.


How this happened, no one knows. Literally. It is totally unknown how they arrived in Houston – remember, they had disappeared from the system entirely in Denver –  but they were here.

A guy went to pull my bags from whatever cart on which they were languishing. Twenty minutes later I was on my way to the hotel, jubilant at the prospect of toothpaste and a change of clothes. My main suitcase now has a broken handle, but I didn’t care.

Since it was only 8am, my newly booked room wasn’t ready. Invigorated by my bags victory, I thus went to work on the Hobby Airport Inn aka The Dishonest Mouse House, calling and getting my money back. Then I left a very kind review on the website to inform future customers that, given the choice, they should opt to sleep in a hard hat zone like me rather than in that place. Sleep deprivation may have played a part in my lexical choices.

All that said, I made a critical discovery that evening at the hotel: While I finally made it out of Houston the next morning, it was with a not-inconsequential hangover.

The Marriott hotel bar honors airport drink vouchers.

Thanks, Southwest.


a selection of my canceled flights

One thought on “Three Days, Four Drink Vouchers: A Travel Nightmare

  1. Pingback: A Second Look | Laughter is the Best Medicine

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