I am the type of traveler who plans out every iteration and option and detail of a trip beforehand.
Usually under the premise that I will only have limited time wherever I’m going (certainly no time for a flight delay), I spend days pouring through travel books, online forums, blogs and the like trying to figure out exactly how to sap the most out of my trip.
For my trips abroad, I’ve manufactured interactive maps online to share with my friends in order to best arrange my thoughts and potential trip routes. I am a transportation planner by trade. I make a living thinking through ever iteration of every situation that could ever happen and planning a transit system that will handle any number of inconsistencies and uncontrollable external factors.
Like a transportation network, things usually don’t go as planned in travel; accidents can clog an artery stopping traffic and causing detours. Any number of things can derail even the best planning efforts. My plans however, serve more as a set of guidelines, a list of potential options to choose, always with the presumption that detours will occur. In fact, most of my favorite experiences traveling have been the result of an accident or spontaneous change of attitude or events.
Still, heading out on a long awaited adventure abroad, the last thing that anyone wants to experience is a flight delay, throwing a wrench in the chains of a robust travel itinerary, connecting flights, hotel reservations, and the like. As I sat on the plane set to depart for Tokyo’s Narita airport en route eventually to Bangkok, the flight crew continued to provide excuse after excuse for why we could not push back from the gate. Ultimately, we found out that the landing gear had been sheered and subsequently replaced three separate times before the aircraft was deemed unworthy of flight. Crews proceeded to usher us off of the plane and into the international terminal at SFO with no indication of where we should go to ensure that we’d find an alternative route to our destination. The departure gate desk sat devoid of flight staff, and trips to customer service only resulted in being routed back to the unattended desk at the gate. Here is where I made friends with my crew for the next 24 hours of my trip.
Ed, an electrician with a New Englander’s accent, had been sitting next to me on the plane telling me about his plans to start his ten-day 48th birthday party by first meeting his Irish buddies in Bangkok before heading down to the islands in southern Thailand. As Ed and I stood around pondering as to how United had not delegated any staff to handle the troves of angry people exiting the aircraft, we found that a few people around us would likewise be missing the Narita to Bangkok connecting flight.
This is how the rag-tag crew of gentleman I shall never forget formed. With no agent in sight, Billy, a 71-year-old ex-professional scuba diver who now lives on a boat in Marin invited us to join him as guests in the United Club, where their VIP-member specific customer service agents would certainly help to handle our situation. Although a few other United emeritus VIP patrons had beat us to the scene, we were assured that our situation would be fixed, but that the replacement aircraft wouldn’t be prepared for ten hours or so. Rather than stress about all of the moving parts that would be ultimately affected by this delay, Ed and I followed Billy to the bar and proceeded to indulge in some complementary glasses of highball scotch. Our original flight was supposed to depart at something like 7:30am, so undergoing a time check, it was probably around 9:30am.
In conversation, I found that Billy takes two months out of every year to go live on an island in southern Thailand where he bought a place many years ago. Kurt, a 58-year-old owner of an electronics company with a manufacturing plant in Thailand, was also en route to Bangkok. He had just ended a thirty year relationship with his now ex-wife and would be visiting as he described “girlfriends one and two” on the trip, but was not looking for anything particularly serious considering his recent divorce. Myself being 23 at the time, we certainly had a good range of ages represented.
Fast forward around twelve hours to landing in Tokyo, Ed and I had devised plans to light up the town all night in honor of his birthday, but upon arrival we found that trains downtown would take around an hour in each direction and had already closed for the night. Sleeping wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, we decided. Billy had taken another route and had taken full advantage of the complementary alcohol selection on the flight, falling asleep in the lobby of the hotel.
The next morning he stated
You know man, I only have so much time left on this earth, and I don’t intend to spend any of it waiting in line at a hotel check-in desk.
Kurt ultimately helped him to his room and we all rejoined forces the next morning at breakfast before catching the shuttle to the airport. Upon clearing security, we made a bee line for the United lounge again where we were greeted with plates of freshly prepared sushi rolls, a plethora of ingredients for DIY cocktails and a machine that will take a chilled glass and tilt it as it pours a beer with a perfect head on it.
Later on, we headed to the gate where we inevitably needed to stand in line to board the aircraft. Billy – again not a fan of lines – decided to head off to the nearest kiosk where he purchased four large bottles of Ashai beer and handed them out to us. His thoughts were that some lines can’t be avoided and for those that can’t, they’re better endured with a beer in hand. Upon reaching the front of the line, the flight staff wasn’t particularly keen on four guys taking glass bottle on the aircraft and told us that we had to throw them away. So there we stood, our rag-tag crew holding up the boarding process to chug our beers, upholding the stereotype of the belligerent self-fulfilling American in full force.
Eight hours later, we were in Bangkok, each going our separate ways, with nothing more than an email contact to tie us back together. I may not ever see Ed, Billy or Kurt ever again, but I will certainly forever remember the fun time we made of our originally unfortunate situation.
Moral of the story: keep an open mind to unforeseen changes and don’t be scared to make some new friends, especially those with VIP airline status.