Larry’s Odyssey, or Offending the Gods of Travel, Part 1

June 4, 2012

Consider, dear Reader, a long-winded story about a man smitten by the gods of travel. I arrived at my hotel in Istanbul at 3:30am, 10 hours before I was to speak at the e-commerce expo, and without my one piece of luggage. The mechanics of how I got to this place have already made their way onto Twitter and Facebook, but how the glamour and excitement of traveling half-way across the world to speak can be tainted by the harsh realities of modern travel is another story in itself.

I am a simple man, who lives a relatively quiet life, in a small Pennsylvania college town two hours from anywhere. I mostly work at home, primarily for one publisher and a smattering of clients. I play with and take care of my kids. I spend time with my wife. I tinker about the house. I interact with readers. It’s a quiet, relatively stress-free life. This is how I like it. But I was given a wonderful opportunity to speak at an e-commerce conference in Istanbul, a trip one should not turn down.

I was to speak in Istanbul at 1:40pm on Wednesday, May 30, 2012. Heading east to Europe requires an overnight flight, and so, prepared for jet lag, I arranged my travel as to arrive on Monday, May 28th, 2012, at around 7pm (all times are local, unless otherwise indicated). This would also give me two full days in Istanbul to sightsee, which is as much as I could manage, considering other demands on my time. My original flight plans were:

  • Sunday, May 27, leave State College, PA (SCE) at 7:40pm, arrive at Washington Dulles (IAD) at 8:50pm
  • Sunday, May 27, leave Washington Dulles at 10pm, arrive in Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) at 11:50am on Monday, May 28
  • Monday May 28, leave Frankfurt at 3:20pm, arrive in Istanbul, Turkey (IST) at 7:15pm

Total travel time (from the time I leave my house for the airport to the time I arrive at my hotel in Istanbul): approximately 19 hours. Expected time in Istanbul: 81 hours.

Note: My local time is -5 hours from UTC; Frankfurt is +1; Istanbul is +2.

State College is a somewhat small town, with a small airport. Two gates. Only three airlines fly in and out. Just recently added a control tower. The planes you fly on are small, normally handling only about 21 people are so. Small planes are more susceptible to bad weather.

I arrive at my local airport around 5:30pm on Sunday. The flight out is already delayed, as the plane has not left IAD yet, due to bad weather. (The same plane just flies back and forth between the two airports.) Thirty minutes later, it’s clear that I won’t make my connection to Frankfurt, which appears to be the last flight out of IAD for the night (to Europe). The plan is to return home and try again the next day.

For some reason, Turkish Airlines, which provides the last leg of my flight, can’t be rescheduled through the computer, so the attendant calls the help desk, who sees that there’s an 11:25pm Turkish Airlines flight that night from IAD direct to IST. I get rescheduled on it, with hopes of making the flight still. All other passengers on the DC flight will also miss their connections and head home, leaving me as the only customer on the plane. Time passes.

Free WiFi in the airport, and I do some work on the third edition of my “PHP Advanced” book.

The weather clears enough that the plane finally leaves IAD to arrive in State College sometime past 9:30pm, three hours after its expected arrival. They can do a quick turnaround, and leave about 20 minutes later, getting me to IAD in just enough time to catch the 11:25pm flight to Istanbul. There is much rejoicing. And then the gods of travel strike again.

IAD shuts down new incoming flights until they clear up the backlog: our plane cannot even take off until that happens. A decision won’t be made until 10:30pm. I begin moving towards rescheduling my flights for Monday, arriving in Istanbul on Tuesday. Sometime after 10pm, the TSA official says that the block has been lifted, and we take off at 10:26pm, not quite three hours late. The pilot is cleared to use a faster route: only 35 minutes to IAD. There is hope. Being the only customer, I get very personal service from the nice attendant. Announcements are directed just to me. Also on the flight is a United Airlines employee commuting to IAD for his next day’s work.

The plane lands at IAD around 11pm. The United employee helps me to run to the gate for the Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. We arrive at the gate at 11:15pm. The plane is nowhere to be found. There are no Turkish Airlines employees to be found. The plane has been gone for a while. Several other wanna-be passengers arrive after me. Turkish Airlines left us all behind. I’m staying in Washington for the night, and losing a day in Istanbul.

The very helpful United Airlines employee on my flight from SCE generously takes me to a computer to reschedule my flight, even though he doesn’t officially start work until the next morning. All flights to Europe leave late in the day, so I’m booked on a 6pm Monday flight to London Heathrow, arriving in London at 6am on Tuesday (1am my time). The flight to Istanbul leaves London at 11:00am (-ish), arriving in Istanbul around 5pm (-ish), 22 hours after my original estimated time.

I get to my hotel in Washington sometime after 1am, and am asleep by 2am. But at least I can sleep in. Which I do, until 8am, because I am not used to sleeping in. The hotel, despite being a Hilton, is not very good. I used to live in Washington, and I debate seeing a museum in the 8 hours I have to waste that day, but decide to work instead. $10 for Internet access in the hotel, more work on my PHP Advanced book. Breakfast at the hotel for $20 (all prices in USD). No Washington Post at the hotel (how is that possible?!?).

I arrive back at IAD after noon on Monday to check in. I totally treat myself by upgrading to business class. I’ve never flown business or first class, and have always wanted to. The upgrade is $350, but I’ll get $100 back on my unused upgrade to Economy Plus, and I might get $150 back from not using a night’s stay in Istanbul. Net result: business class for $100. Deal! I also get to use United’s airport lounge while I wait. Free snacks and drinks, free WiFi. More work on my PHP Advanced book. A bit of Twitter.

Hop on the plane after 5pm (this is still Monday), and snuggle down in business class. I get some work done. I eat well. I watch a movie (“Tree of Life“). Cannot sleep, which is bad. But I’m getting to Europe, which will get me to Istanbul, which is good.

Arrive in London at 6am (1am my time), having not slept. A bit shaky and delirious. Have five hours to kill until my flight leaves to Istanbul. If I can hold on until then, I can sleep on that plane. Just five hours; boarding in less time than that.

The terminal at London Heathrow is the largest duty-free shopping I’ve ever seen. I’m well tired (“knackered”, as they would say in England, I believe), and the virtual open mall I’ve walked into is overwhelming. I have a traditional English breakfast, which runs me $35: two cups of “American” coffee, scrabbled eggs, a nice sausage, the saltiest bacon I’ve ever had in my life (the saltiest anything I’ve ever eaten in my life), a portabello mushroom, some tomatoes, and a piece of fried bread, the name of which I cannot recall. There’s a good chance this isn’t an appropriate meal for my body; possibly taking several months off my life. I can still taste the salt in the bacon.

Wander the shops. Spend $10 (possibly more) on Internet access. Email the wife; do a bit of tweeting. Cannot work, as I cannot think clearly. Just have to hold on until 10:40am (5:40am my time), when the gate will be announced, and I can board my flight. Strange rumblings online about the flight being delayed; nothing being said about it within the airport. Must hold on to hope.

10:40am, the flight is officially delayed. Must find way to cope.

London Heathrow has paid lounges with bedrooms and showers. I need a place to rest and pony up approximately $90 for three hours usage. I cannot sleep, as I’m nervous about the next flight, but I rest. After 2pm, my time is up. Money not well spent. Despite two requests for wake up calls, none are made. Bought an extra hour in the bedroom because it gave me free access to the lounge. Turns out the free access is only during that three hour window. Monday not well spent. But…

The flight is now on its way from Istanbul and should be able to head back to Istanbul around 5:30pm, six hours delayed. Just have to hold on…

Word on the street (i.e., within the airport) is that the Turkish parliament is debating making it illegal for airport-related workers to go on strike. In retaliation, the grounds crew went on strike that morning, delaying all flights.

Fun fact: how entertaining you find something ironic to be is indirectly proportional to how much the irony messes with your quality of life.

Have to buy a UK adapter to plug-in my laptop, as the battery is dying ($10). Did not bring a UK adapter, as I was not going to be in the UK. Cannot work; delirious. Throwing money at problems is quickly becoming a problem in its own right, and not one you can throw money at to solve.

Plane is ready to board around 5pm. I go to the gate and provide boarding pass. Red flags go off in the system; I have heart attack. Need a new boarding pass, but I’m on the flight. Huge sigh of relief. The two seats next to me are empty (was it something I said?): small victories.

Cannot sleep on the plane. Cannot read. Cannot work. Delirious. Watch a movie (“Contagion“).

Arrive in Istanbul after midnight Tuesday/early morning Wednesday. Speaking in 13.5 hours. Glad to be in Istanbul finally, until the travel gods strike again:

  • Takes 1.5 hours to get through customs.
  • My one bag is nowhere to be found.
  • Have to fill out a missing bag form using combination pidgin Turkish/pidgin English.
  • Took so long to get to this point that I miss the person assigned to drive me to the hotel (I get a page; I wait and no one appears; I page the person that paged me twice and no one appears).
  • Spend $80 to get a ride to the hotel.

Finally in my hotel room at 3:30am, 36 hours since I last slept. I check in with my wife at 3:30am (10:30pm her time), to let her know I finally arrived. I am speaking in 10 hours. I can sleep for six, but then I must go shopping as I can’t give a presentation in my shorts.

Total travel time: approximately 19 hours 49 hours. Expected time in Istanbul: 81 hours 51 hours.

I am in Istanbul in time for my presentation. But the travel gods are not done with me yet, as I have offended them greatly.

To be continued…