Today’s travel saga

At the risk of tempting fate, I am waiting until I get to Eugene to actually post this. So far, though, I’ve had a series of minor travel miracles today and I want to celebrate them, since I know so many of my travelling friends will appreciate the tale.

Got to the Austin airport this morning and my biggest concern was the possibility of missing a tight connection in San Francisco. Then we left late. Not late enough to make it impossible to make the connection, but late enough to make it much less comfortable of a situation. The fates, in the voice of United’s texting service, decided to one-up that fear by sending me a message that I saw while taxiing to the gate in San Francisco – turns out my flight to Eugene was straight-out cancelled due to “air traffic control”. They helpfully provided a link for re-booking in the text message, but I don’t have a smartphone, so I asked the friendly lady next to me for their 800 number, so I could start the re-booking process on the phone as soon as possible. Unfortunately, United’s phone system still thought I was flying to Eugene as scheduled at 10:40am, so I couldn’t do anything on the phone. Got off the plane, hightailed it to the Customer Service Center, and then cooled my heels in line. I overheard one of the two agents telling another man (about 5 people in front of me) that his only option to get to Eugene was to fly to Denver at 10pm tonight and then fly to Eugene tomorrow. *If* the storm passed, that flight from Denver would go…otherwise not. And they only have one daily flight. She was also very negative about everything he kept asking her, so I crossed my fingers that I would get the other representative to work with.

And I did!  I told her my situation and she starting clacking away on the keyboard. Meanwhile the other agent was telling the couple who’d been behind me in line that they could put themselves on the stand-by list for the 1:30pm to Eugene – they would be 12th and 13th in line…and it would be a tiny plane. Didn’t sound promising. I added that I’d prefer to fly to Eugene, but if she could get me to Portland that would be close enough. A little while later the agent emitted a triumphant “aha!” and said “I got you on the 10:45 flight…”, and just as my hopes began to rise, she stopped short and said “Wait. No. That’s pm, that’s tonight.” I told her it was one thing to get to Portland and figure out transport to Eugene in the late afternoon or early evening, but that I wasn’t keen on arriving in the middle of the night (not to mention sitting around SFO for 12 hours).

More clacking. Sighs of frustration  – from her, not me, I was holding it together and trying to win her over with kindness and patience. Then she says – “Hey! There IS a 10:45am and there are 2 spots left on it. It’s boarding now, they are just about to close the airplane door.” So I say that’s fantastic, please put me on the list and give me a new boarding pass for that flight, and I will do everything in my power to get to gate 75, and she attempts this but finds out they’ve locked the list down, but if I “run really fast”, then maybe I would make it in time. And if not I can come back and see her again and not have to wait in line again. I’m counting backwards based on the time stamps on my (very slightly later) phone calls and text to my mom, but I’d estimate it was about 10:37am.

So I TAKE OFF running. I always think this is a logical way for people with tight connections to behave in airports, but I also always think – all the while sprinting through the airport and weaving around fellow travellers and their luggage – that I’m mere moments away from being tackled by a suspicious TSA agent. It didn’t happen this time, though. I run for a few minutes…I keep slowing to grab a breath…but I keep speeding up again because I do not want to miss what feels like My Chance. I get to the gate. It is a ghost town. There is one woman at the front desk. I wheeze out my story. She says boarding is finished, there are no spots left anyway on the flight. I say the United rep sent me over because there were spots, that she told me to “run really fast” and I did, and here I am, and can she please check. She says there’s no way, there are “other people waiting” to get on the flight still. I see no one at the gate waiting, so I ask again, explain about the cancellation of my other flight. She lets out a huff of frustration. She steps behind the podium to print the passenger manifest. She slowly tears off the dot-matrix printer edges. She straightens the papers. I am on the verge of asking if I should just leave, if there’s  truly no chance and she’s giving me the silent treatment so I will give up and go away, but I wait for what feels like many more awkward moments without saying anything. I have nothing to lose, right?

And, lo! She finally bites out that I should go talk to the gate agent by the door. The gate agent is consulting with her supervisor to see if she can release seats that belong to other passengers, since they just landed half a terminal away and they cannot possibly make it to the flight in the next 1-2 minutes. Supervisor nods agreement. Another man materializes from somewhere and heads to the front desk. The gate agent says he is “trying” to make me a boarding pass, so I call my mom and tell her quickly there is bad news and good news and bad news: my original flight was cancelled, but I might be getting on a flight in a minute, but I also will be arriving in Portland. She says I should just do it, she will convince her beau to drive up and get me. I figure Portland is way closer to where I need to be, and worst-case I can get a bus down later tonight, so I was already on board with this plan B. I did check a suitcase to Eugene, but as the man holds out my boarding pass and I ask about that, I am assured it will still go there when it can (everybody make a collective offering to the travel gods, pretty please…) And then I take my boarding pass, I call my mom again as I nip down the jet-way to tell her I am taking this flight, and then I am quite literally on board the plane, still wheezy and gulping water to calm the breathless coughing fit that has resulted from the SFO however-many-meter dash. My last text to my mom before they close the airplane door and I shut off my phone is sent at 10:46am.

I land in Portland about 10 minutes early and turn on my phone to find – this time – a message from my mom saying much the same as United did on my last flight: my ride from point A to point B is cancelled. Turns out there is a winter storm in Eugene (thus the flight cancellation) and her beau doesn’t want to do the drive. Totally understandable, but now I’m on to plan C. She also helpfully texted me that there is a train station in Portland. I’ve already seen the schedules, though, since I am travelling back to Portland by Amtrak in a few days, and I know there’s only one train a day. They do have buses, but if it’s the roads that are sketchy, that doesn’t seem ideal. If I’m going by road, I might as well see if there’s a shuttle directly from the airport, to save myself the 50-minute trip downtown on the MAX, the walk to the train/bus station, the finding out X number of buses are full with holiday travellers, etc. (Don’t get me wrong, Portland, I LOVE that the MAX exists and that it’s so easy to use, and I fervently wish Austin would follow your lead and design a similar system, but today is not the day.)

Luckily I have my Chromebook with me because I have a few small work things to take care of over the holidays. I contemplate using my United Club Guest Pass to use their free wifi, but then decide to see if PDX has wifi in the terminals first, so I don’t waste my pass. You can only go in once with a guest pass (no re-entry), and I want to save it in case I need to kill many an hour in the Portland airport drinking free well cocktails of dubious quality. I perch on a seat at the closest gate, Google “shuttle from PDX to Eugene”, and come upon Hut transport. I check their rate – it could be worse. I check their schedule – they have a 12:45pm and a 2:45pm. It’s about 12:46pm at this point, so I try to reserve the 2:45pm online, but the system won’t take reservations less than 6 hours in advance. So I head (still quickly, just in case) down to the info booth to ask about it. The guy there tells me the next one is at 2:45pm but that I can’t reserve a place – I have to come back at 2:30pm and hope for the best, since you just pay the driver if you don’t have a prior reservation. I ask if I can call them to at least check if they have room still and he dials their number for me and hands me the phone, saying “good luck getting someone to answer”. I comment that it’s a shame I missed the last shuttle by just 5 minutes and he says that yes, it was just there and gone. He says there are other companies too, maybe with earlier departures, and starts checking on that, so I hang up the phone and decide to see what other options I have.  As he is clacking away on his keyboard, I look up and out the window, and what should I see but a white minibus with HUT in purple lettering idling at the furthest curb. I tell him I’m going to try to get this one and he glances over his shoulder out the window and looks really surprised and says he thought it had left already. I dash across 3 roads (looking both ways, calm down) and race up to the driver, who’s loading the last suitcase into the back. I ask where he’s going, and he says south. I ask if that includes Eugene and he says yes. I ask if he has space and he drones out “yes” while drawing a new line on his clipboard paper for me to print my name. I don’t have enough cash, is a credit card ok? Yesssssss. I am elated, and he could not be more bored. Hopefully he’s alert up there right now.

I say “up there” because I am on the 12:45pm shuttle, friends, and we left the airport at 12:54pm. I would not have made the Portland flight without me physically running and the airline also running the tiniest bit late. Ditto this shuttle. And it has free wifi, so I decided to spend part of the journey recounting today’s adventures. Sharing the story was good enough that it won out over continuing season 7 of “Burn Notice”!

So…United just texted me again while I was typing that last paragraph. Know what it says? “Your 400pm flight to Eugene is delayed due to awaiting aircraft. UA5651 now departs San Francisco 440pm and arrives 613pm”. I just laughed out loud and my bus companions startled a bit. Because – United, really? – Because your rep never even mentioned there WAS a 400pm flight, let alone that I was supposed to be moved to it. As far as I knew, the 123pm flight was the only other option and it was beyond a long shot. Because I already flew to Oregon on your aircraft and landed an hour ago. Because I’m 1/3 of the way to Eugene on a bus from Portland.

In closing, I will say that I would never have made the flight or the shuttle if I hadn’t checked my bag this morning, it would have slowed me down just enough. It was free with my United credit card, so I figured what the heck, why struggle. That said, I hope this streak of luck continues and that my suitcase makes it to Eugene. I don’t care if it’s tomorrow or the next day, but I really hope we are reunited. Then again, it was clearly tagged with Eugene as a destination and I wasn’t…maybe that will help?

Epilogue: came back online to post this as we neared Eugene and to report that I just got another helpful text from United just a few minutes ago. Apparently my 400pm flight to Eugene also had a gate change that needed to be urgently communicated.  Thanks for the info, United.

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