Author’s note: I didn’t travel anywhere this holiday season, but right now my husband is stranded in Oregon due to a blizzard here in Colorado. Though I’m cozy at home, I started remembering this tale of travel woe from January of 2010, which is so detailed I wrote it in two installments. Read Part 1 of this story.

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.

Showing 5 comments
  • Rosemary Carstens

    Laurel: I thought I had posted a comment on the first part of your anti-adventure, but guess I dreamed that! I feel your pain–you and your husband are very determined! I’m not sure I would have come back for rounds 2 and 3. Travel used to be a FUN adventure, not an experiment in exhaustion and endurance. Maybe the next Survivor season should play out only in terminals with no advance reservations or arrangements, only X amount of time to get to a certain city and return. I’m glad you at least had a few lovely days at your ultimate destination!

  • Gail Storey

    Thanks for this second installment in your travel saga. So harrowing, but you and your husband are to be lauded for your resilience. I now travel by air with more preparation (physical and emotional) than I did to hike the Pacific Crest Trail! I do yoga in the airport lounge, bring a huge stack of magazines that I can leave behind as I read them, listen to meditation talks on my iPod, go carry-on, and pack a ton of energy bars. Your post helps me realize we’re all in this together.

    • Laurel Kallenbach

      Thanks for your insights…because all travelers *are* in it together. And, it’s good to be prepared with ways to keep yourself healthfully fed, exercised, and relaxed…because it could be a bumpy ride!

  • Tami Palmer

    Yes, it’s so easy to laugh at these stories after the fact, but in the moment…oy, they can be trying to say the least. I’m proud you turned it into an adventure and tried for Oakland on day two. Why not.

    So one of my worst travel stories occured enroute to Hawaii. Our plane was halfway to Hawaii (about 3 hours out) from LA when the pilot announced that the plane needed to turn around and go back to LA because there was a crack in the windshield. Airplanes are equipped with a double windshield for such emergencies, but it was a harrowing and frustrating return back to LA. Everyone took in a deep breath as we deboarded and saw the shattered pane. After the delay in finding another plane and then continuing our trip, I believe I arrived in Hawaii about 7 hours late. It made for a VERY long day and very stressful start to a vacation.

  • Carol Apple

    So glad you finally reached your destination! As I rarely travel I don’t have any story that can come close to this one. The pilot did get locked out of cockpit on our honeymoon to flight to Bajamas, but the co-pilot was perfectly able to land the plane. Otherwise I wouldn’t even be able to tell that feeble story.

    Sounds like travelling is becoming ever more adventurous. Would like to see a re-write of The Accidental Tourist for the current era. No more guaranteed adventure-free travel.

    I may possible brave a flight to go to my 30-year class reunion in Greely this summer. Plans are still – er – up in the air.

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