Tips for Happier Traveling in Stressful Situations

Looking back at my airport odyssey (see “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Portland,” Part 1 and Part 2) reminds me not to take ease of traveling for granted. So many times I get on a plane and get off again at my destination without any problems at all.

As pointed out to me by many readers, I’ve been lucky. To date, the extent of my airline catastrophes have been having my luggage delayed by a day (twice) and missing my flight (once before this trip)—and the first time I was able to get on the next flight just two hours later.

So when we’re fortunate, we should thank the travel gods or St. Christopher (patron saint of travelers). Really, what’s the point of grumbling about lack of leg room or the absence of meals on flights? (Remember how we used to complain about airplane food? Now we don’t have icky food to worry about.)

When travel does not go smoothly, however, here are a few things I discovered that might help you suffer less and have a better overall attitude:

1. Expect the best; be prepared for the worst. Pack and plan accordingly.

  • Give yourself at least two hours lead time at airports during busy travel times.
  • Take a brown-bag lunch in case you don’t have time to stop for food before catching your flight. (Or in case you can’t find any healthy food in the airport.)
  • Never put valuables or prescription medicines in your checked luggage—you may never see that suitcase again.
  • Pack a change of clothes and essentials in your carry-on—just in case your suitcase doesn’t follow you to your destination.
  • Bring a good book to take your mind off delays.

2. Resist falling into victim mode. A passenger rarely has control over the situation when lines, security hang-ups, flight overbooking, flight cancellations, et cetera, et cetera, occur—so it’s easy to feel persecuted or victimized. Acceptance is a good practice, for your own sanity. Shed tears, mope, whatever—but then get over it and deal. Spreading your anger or grumpiness just puts everyone else in a bad mood.

3. Try to find creative solutions. Once I accepted that I was not going to get on my flights for the day…and the next…I distracted myself from the emotional anguish by trying to figure out what, if anything, I could do. Ken and I asked questions of many different people along the way. Most times we hit dead ends—we still couldn’t get to Oregon before Monday—but at least we can say we tried.

4. Practice compassion for others. People are more helpful and sympathetic than you think. If you don’t go ballistic or start yelling at airlines employees, they may extend help in whatever way they can. Many of them honestly want their customers to be happy and have a good experience. (Contented travelers make their jobs easier!) But remember, there’s a limit to their abilities to smooth your way. All the Southwest Airline employees I encountered were helpful beyond belief and tried to make the best of a bad situation. (I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be in their shoes, having to dole out bad news to us travel-weary passengers.)

5. Keep things in perspective. Even though a trip may be going down the tubes, it might help to remember that this is not brain surgery, and that no one will die because of scrubbed travel plans. (You did buy travel insurance…right?)

6. Humor can help. In the heat of the moment, I was not nearly so glib about our travel snafus as I seem in my posts. Ken was even less amused. I will admit, however, that the journalist in me saw ripe potential for a clever, funny piece about my ill-fated sojourns. My advice: If at all possible, try to find something about the situation to laugh at—or at least let yourself stay open to the possibility that you might one day look back on all this and laugh.

7. Stretch or walk around the concourse. Just moving your body can improve your attitude and ability to cope with the stress of cancelled flights or mechanical delays.

8. Say thank you! When an airport employee helps you, say thank you. When an airport employee can’t help you, say thank you. He or she made an effort.

I’d love to hear your suggestions for responding to travel trauma with calm.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Portland … Part 2

Author’s note: You’ll find Part 1 of this blog posted just below this one. Or click here to go to it.

Ken and I leapt from bed at 4:45 on Sunday morning, fed the cat, grabbed the sandwiches we prepared Saturday night, and headed to the bus station. It was Re-Do Day…and we were determined to get everything right, like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.

This time, the bus to Denver International wasn’t nearly so packed (because it was earlier!) and we arrived a few minutes early. This time, the Southwest check-in line clipped along at a speedy 15 minutes, plus we had no baggage to check. This time, we glided through the security line. No delays, no equipment breakdowns—just smooth sailing.

We spent the better part of two days in Concourse C. Photo courtesy of DIA.

We spent the better part of two days in Concourse C. Photo courtesy of DIA.

We camped out at the gate of the Southwest flight to Oregon one-and-a-half-hours early. We were first in line to board on standby on the overbooked flight, yet the gate attendant gave us a pitying look as she wished us good luck. Crossing our fingers, we grimly munched on our sandwiches. And waited.

Soon that same pitying gate attendant began making announcements: “We’re now taking volunteers for anyone who would like to give up their seat. How about spending the day and night in Las Vegas? We’ll fly you there, put you up in a swanky Vegas hotel, and get you to Portland tomorrow morning. Plus we’ll give you a $200 voucher for your next Southwest flight.”

A few cheery gamblers came forward. The odds weren’t looking so good for Ken and me.

Airport Purgatory

Sure enough, the flight left for Portland while we still sat forlornly in Denver. Dejected, we asked for options. A 2:30 flight to Oakland had two unclaimed seats, and once in Oakland, there were two more oversold flights to Portland that we could try on a standby basis. Let’s do it, we agreed, taking our cue from the Vegas travelers. Oakland might have our lucky number.

With five hours to kill before leaving DIA, we stretched out on the carpet in a quiet part of the concourse and napped. (DIA chair rows all have arms, so if you want to lie down, there’s only the floor.) An hour later, we emerged stiff, but a teensy bit refreshed, and took solace in lunch at a sports bar.

Ken is not exactly what I’d call a fan of the sport he calls “snootball,” so you have some idea about our morale when he plunked down at a table, ordered a pint of Fat Tire, and became engrossed in the Dolphins vs. Steelers game. When turnabout fumbles happened, we started to chuckle, and then to laugh. It was the first time either of us had cracked a smile in two days.

California (?!) Here We Come

We had a good-humored flight to Oakland: Southwest flight attendants specialize in wise-cracking over the microphone in their Dallas drawls. Besides, Ken and I got a row to ourselves and whole cans of soda instead of a three-ounce cup. What more could we ask for after the last grueling 24 hours?

When we arrived in California, the East Bay turned golden as the sun set, and for a few moments we reveled in looking out the window of the Oakland airport and seeing reeds and shorebirds instead of airplane wings, engines, baggage carts and tarmac.

Our reprieve was short-lived, however, as all the flights to Portland from Oakland were overbooked, and we were unable to fly standby. In fact, a number of other passengers joined our League of Stranded Travelers club. We started making jokes about how we should rent a van and just drive to Oregon. It wasn’t that funny, really.

The Kindness of Strangers

As Ken sat at the gate in a numb stupor, I shifted into manic survival mode, pleading with a soft-hearted gate attendant, Sunita. First, she booked us onto spare seats on a flight to Portland at 6:15 the next morning. (“Whatever you do, don’t miss this flight,” she implored.) Then she also arranged for us to get the “distressed traveler” discount at the airport Best Western. (And boy, did we qualify as distressed travelers!)

And just as it seemed that our trip was giant fiasco, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. I’d already been hatching the idea of extending our trip to Oregon, and so, despite my exhaustion, I made some calls. Suddenly the chorus of “no”—no seats, no flights, no standby—changed its tune.

Yes, the condo on the coast was still available for an extra day. Yes, the rental car dates could be shifted—no problem. Yes, Ken and I could extend our trip by an extra day. Yes, there were seats available for our return home on January 7th instead of January 6th.

And the final, most resounding “yes” of all: Sunita and her supervisor at the Southwest desk performed computer gymnastics and managed to change our return flight for free, by applying the credit that we’d been given by a sympathetic Denver manager about a hundred years ago (really just the day before).

I gave Sunita a huge hug, and later I wrote a letter of appreciation to Southwest Airlines commending her service. (If you’re reading this, Sunita, thank you again!!!!)

Happily Ever After (sort of)

At last, we had confirmed tickets to Portland … for Monday, the day it seemed preordained that we would arrive in Oregon all along. (Indeed, the Travel Fates have an ironic sense of humor.)

In the end, Ken and I spent 48 hours in the process of traveling—or more precisely, not traveling—ate six meals in two airports, and slept at a hotel in the wrong state. But we did arrive finally, and we spent three lovely nights by the Pacific Ocean, which helped us forget our travel trauma.

Other than gray hairs—and the disappointment of not having a fourth night to spend (as originally planned) with Ken’s family in Hood River, Oregon—we sustained no permanent damage.

Footnote #1: My suitcase, which I checked on Saturday, January 2, arrived in Portland on Saturday, January 2. It greeted us—tanned and rested—when we arrived (bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived) on Monday, January 4.

Footnote 2: If you know anything about the weather in Oregon, you also know that I’m lying about my suitcase sporting a suntan.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Already I’ve heard some other travel horror stories from readers. Feel free to share yours by leaving a comment below.

P.S. I’ll cover some “Lessons Learned” in my next post.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Portland … Part 1

Into every traveler’s life, a little rain must fall. For me and my husband, our January 2–6 trip to the Oregon coast ended up being not just a drizzle of mishaps, but the perfect storm of travel nightmares.

I was oddly relaxed on January 1, 2010—I had time to pack and was finished with the pre-trip deadlines. After the hectic holidays, Ken and I were eager to spend a few days relaxing and whale-watching on the coast. (Late December and early January see the largest numbers of gray whales migrating south from Alaska to Baja.)

What we didn’t know was that the flight we’d booked way back in summery August was on the worst possible travel day: the Saturday after New Year’s. A day that half the people in the country (so it seemed!) returned from their Christmas vacations so they could be back in the office on Monday.

January 2

Blithely—eagerly—we caught the regional bus early that Saturday morning from Boulder to the airport. Our first surprise was that the suitcase-stowing process on the bus took forever, because so many travelers boarded—and we arrived at Denver International 20 minutes late.

Ken and I hurried to the Southwest Airlines check-in counter—only to find that triple the usual line dividers were in place. Even then, the queues wound down the hall and past the coffee shops. As we inched our way forward for 45 minutes, we decided that instead of checking two suitcases (they’re free on Southwest!) that we’d consolidate our liquids and gels into one checked suitcase and carry on the essentials—just in case that suitcase didn’t make it onto our flight.

The clock was ticking, and no one at the Southwest counter was calling for late check-ins—which often happens when lines are long and people can’t get through. We looked around for someone official to let us cut ahead in line, but everyone was working like crazy.

When we finally checked in, a harried attendant took my suitcase, wrote down our gate number, C-49, and told us we were leaving at 10:30 instead of 10:00. “Hurray! The flight is delayed,” we exclaimed. “No…” he said, “It’s on time …” We rushed away to the security line before he had time to check.

Hurry Up and Wait

Clutching our IDs and boarding passes, we crawled through the TSA line, filled with increasingly unjolly-looking passengers. One or two of the x-ray machines weren’t functioning properly, and technicians came in to run tests. More delays.

I could hear rumbling from others in line: “Do you think we’ll we make it on time, Dad?”

When at last we cleared the security section, Ken and I were prepared to sprint to gate C-49. It was 10:05; if the plane was slow to board, we might just be able to dash on. And if—oh please, please, please!—the flight was delayed until 10:30, we would be in good shape. There might even be time to go to the bathroom before boarding.

When we arrived at gate C-49, the doors were about to close on the flight to … Orlando??

“Where’s the flight to Portland, Oregon?” we shouted to the agent at the counter.

“Not here. Let me check.” The agent punched in our destination. “That’s on the opposite side of the concourse—at gate C-32.”

Cursing the check-in agent who had given us the wrong information, we turned around and began to run back the way we’d come, but by now our legs were lead from schlepping heavy carry-ons and coats. I urged Ken to go ahead if he could—he’s the runner in the family.

Our flight leaves DIA...without me and Ken. Photo courtesy Denver International Airport.

Our flight leaves DIA...without me and Ken. Photo courtesy Denver International Airport.

Alas, when we finally arrived at the right gate by 10:15, the plane was gone, and there were already five others in line discussing their standby options with the Southwest agent. The news wasn’t good. It went like this:

“This is the only nonstop to Portland all day. We could get you on a flight to Orange County, and from there you could fly standby to Oakland, although that flight is oversold by two seats. But if you did make it to Oakland, the last flight to Portland is oversold by seven seats. So you’d be stranded in Oakland for one night, maybe two.”

Doggedly, the man at the counter tapped away at the computer, trying every iteration to get us to our destination. We asked about Sunday. “It looks like tomorrow is more of the same: All flights are overbooked from Denver to Portland, from Salt Lake City to Portland, from Oakland to Portland, from LA to Portland,” he said.

“The next flight that’s not overbooked is on Monday. I could put you on a Monday flight.”

Ken and I were numb. Monday? Impossible. That’s halfway through our four-day trip. Dazed, we flopped down on the chairs to gather our wits. We had an hour and a half until the standby flight to Orange County, which seemed the best option. We were sure we would be lucky enough to get to Orange County and then to Oakland and on to Portland on the same day.

Traveler’s Denial

The reality was that Ken and I were in what might be called traveler’s denial. First we checked again at the Orange County gate desk, where similar chaos reigned. As the day was wearing on, more and more people had missed their flights.

The Southwest gate agent there didn’t sugarcoat the truth. “Yes, you could get to Orange County, but you’ll never make it to Oakland, much less Portland today,” she said. “If I were you, I’d go back home and try on Monday.”

She did take pity on us and asked her manager for help. The manager authorized her to type a note in the computer that our missed fare could be applied toward another Southwest flight in the future. At least the airport Fates had not turned entirely against us.

Next, Ken had an idea. Why not check with United, which has a lot of nonstop flights to Portland every day and see if we could buy a one-way ticket? We took the shuttle train to United in Concourse B, found the Customer Service Desk, and waited in line for another half hour. The tired-but-polite customer-service person checked her screen, and said brightly, “Denver to Portland? I have two seats on…Monday.”

Dejected, we caught the next bus back to Boulder, with a list of standby flights for Sunday.

Tomorrow we’ll be more prepared, we vowed. We’ll arrive at the airport even earlier, allowing for a 20-minute delay on the bus, an hour at the check-in counter, and an hour for security. We’ll buck the odds and make it on standby—because some of tomorrow’s passengers will be sure to miss their flights. Then we’ll walk onto the plane and disembark in Oregon.

Surely the airport gods cannot frown on us a second day in a row.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Tune in for the next installment of our airport odyssey.