You’d think 2 and a half years of preparation for a trip would make things run smoother. It did not.
This was the life changing, Cedar Pointing, US Beast of a Voyage that I once had planned out for 2020 and that was, of course, cancelled later that same year, giving birth to the epic Eurodemption #1. Our determination to make it happen at all costs saw it re-booked and re-cancelled a further three times throughout 2021 while the indecision over entry requirements remained firmly in place, leading to the excessive Eurodemption #2. By the time 2022 rolled around I had gone over this route plan in so many iterations that it was now firmly etched onto my retinas – there will be no Ange-Michels this time I can assure you, this was Ameridemption and it was going to be amazing. Once the flood gates had been opened once more, the trip finally happened, and immediately went wrong.
Day 0 – Travel
After arriving at Heathrow earlier than ever before, we took our then mandatory covid test and proceeded to check in the bags at a very comfortable time frame. I had noticed during this process that a few of the escalators were closed off, only to assume they were broken. This was in fact to filter everyone down to a single entry point for access up to the next floor where security takes place. On this floor were cattlepen queues as far as the eye could see which, although they looked grim, flowed rather well. After a reasonable 40 minutes or so, by no means the shortest wait of the trip and definitely not the longest, we arrived at the scan your boarding pass barrier. The barrier said no.
According to differing stories from various parties this was either an outright system fault, or an arbitrary feature that (incorrectly) determines ‘whether you’ll make the plane or not from this point’, even though we still had well over an hour at this moment in time. Regardless, the staff at these barriers have no power to override the system and were unable to help in any way. We were scooted to one side by some other airport staff into a small group of other travellers with the same issue. Apparently they were going to ask our airline to grant permission for a visual check in order for us to bypass the barriers. American Airlines said no.
The airport staff then suggested that we all head back downstairs to the airline check in desk to sort this issue out with them ourselves. We did so, only to find that the desks were entirely abandoned and there were no airline staff available to assist. After being shouted at, and subsequently ignoring another airport staff member who was insisting that we had to go through the queue again, we found the upstairs staff once more and relayed the fact that the airline were MIA. This confused them, as they had supposedly just spoken to them and they were now at a loss as to what to do. As were we all.
Suddenly the very man who had checked our bags in appeared at speed and began to argue our case with the barrier staff, who suddenly looked terrified at the sight of our group determinedly pouring straight towards them. We were manually let through with the ‘visual check’ and assured by the airline staff member that “once you’re confirmed to be past this barrier on the system, you will make your plane”, which I can only assume meant we would soon get those announcements over the speakers saying hurry up Mr. Slow, we’re holding up this flight for you.
Security itself with all the trays and scanners was actually operating at the highest capacity I’ve ever seen it, which is strange considering the queues are so bad right now. The sudden increase in demand must be insane. We made it through there very quickly to then see the sign that gave us the good news that our gate was as far away as it could physically be, at what was suggested to be a 30 minute walk. Those barriers clearly underestimate our speed as, along with a few of the others, we sprinted it in under 5. Only to arrive at the gate and see one of the same staff members already there shrugging and saying the gate’s closed mate.
To this day I don’t fully understand how the time sink happened or how seemingly most of the rest of the passengers ever made the plane in the first place, unless 90% of those were from connecting flights. Our little group of stragglers from the barrier incident had all felt that they were way ahead of schedule at every step of the process until the mishap occurred and now here we were looking at a plane that was fully prepared to leave without us. All forms of protest were in vain and a high up member of staff approached us to diffuse the situation. “Guys, there’s nothing we can do to get you on this plane, but don’t worry. We have hundreds of flights leaving for the US today and we will get you on one of them, 110%. Go to our ticket rebooking desk right now and they’ll sort you out” Fearing a repeat of the check in desk incident from earlier, we pressed further and specifically asked if anyone was actually at that desk and whether they were aware that we would be coming. The answer was yes.
Once we had manouevred through the various back alleys of the airport that led us to said desk, during which we managed to lose at least half the group, we arrived to see two staff members who had no idea that we were coming. One was under training and the other was seconds away from leaving for the day. A strongly worded phonecall was made, presumably back to the guy we had just spoken to, to the tune of why have you done this? and I need to go home now. All credit to her though, she stayed on and helped us in our time of need.
The options were nowhere near as vast as had been promised, particularly as it was supposedly now our fault that the airport was useless and the airline shouldn’t have to compensate for that. Option one was the April Orlando special – come back 24 hours later for the same flight to Philadelphia, oh and we won’t pay for a hotel. a) we aren’t losing a day of our holiday and b) we live here. Option two was an 18-hour overnight flight with a layover in Los Angeles (so the complete opposite end of the country). A simple “no” was sufficient to shoot that one down and arouse a long overdue smattering of laughter amongst our fellow passengers.
I was straight with her about our own situation at this point – we’re driving to Pittsburgh tonight so you can dump us anywhere in the Eastern US TODAY and we’ll be out of your hair. (Fun aside, we would have been flying straight to Pittsburgh had this been 2020 and they hadn’t cancelled that route since covid). A plane leaving for New York in 3 hours soon had our name on it, but it was in a different terminal and we’d have to queue for security again.
We took a bus to T5 and once more found ourselves in a massive line that this time had various artistic murals of empty water bottles seemingly set up in protest throughout all the temporary barriers that held everyone in place. During this wait we had to make an urgent phonecall in order to rebook our car hire, seeing as we were now going to be arriving into a different city.
Fair play to BA this time, as we had a flight + car booking and they could already see on their system that we had been rerouted, they were happy to oblige, no fuss. We were given an email address and the personal mobile number of an agent in an office in Crawley and instructed to explain our situation via email and text in order to get the quickest response possible. By the time we made it to the gate, which hadn’t been closed in our face, we received a call back from an extremely helpful person who moved our car hire, no questions asked, and delivered the wonderful news that it was now in fact £500 cheaper for us. Ordeal = profit, apparently.
The flight itself passed without much event. I won Who Wants to be a Millionaire (a tradition on planes which I’ve now managed to keep since January 2020), watched a Korean action film and tolerated what some would call food. Soon we found ourselves at JFK, which turned out to be ridiculously quiet, ready for a fight with Avis, the very car hire company that had tried to scam us just a couple of months ago. Though media has tried to teach me things about New Yorkers, they were totally solid and the whole process was so much better than it had been in Miami. Just like 3 years prior we were given El Toro: the car (a Kia Soul), though sadly not in the correct colour this time.
Thankfully JFK isn’t how I pictured it either and doesn’t dump you into 6 lanes of yellow cabs honking their horns and not moving, so we managed to escape the clutches of the city in no time at all and begin the, more arduous than initially intended, first long drive of the trip.
Our estimated arrival time was well past 2am at this point and that was without factoring in a stop for food. Having been stung in the past by American hotels who arbitrarily decide (just like those barriers) that you’re too late and not going to arrive after a certain time in the evening, lie about trying to contact you and then kindly cancel your room without notice, we called ahead to the establishment in order to let them know how late we were running. We’re not out of the woods yet.
The guy we spoke to said that it was fine for us to turn up at whatever time, however he had already cancelled our room without notice because they had checked the credit card details earlier and they weren’t valid. Oh and he lied about trying to contact us. So here was the situation – I had booked almost every hotel on this road trip back in January for the sake of forward planning and cost saving. The credit card which I had used expired at the end of April and both of the systems I used for the bookings had a method for updating your card details against each one. When my new card sprang into action at the beginning of May, I went online and updated these details accordingly. Clearly this didn’t work and now not only did we not have a hotel for the first night, we potentially didn’t have one for any of the rest of the trip because we had to assume they will all be this useless and silently bail on us at any given moment.
It was at this point we stopped for both food and a minor mental breakdown about why nothing works any more. There was no point in pressing on to what would now likely be a 3am arrival at a hotel that had already spited us, for a worse deal than originally planned. We could just continue the long drive in the morning. I instead managed to find what looked like a last minute steal on a 2 bedroom suite that just so happened to border Hersheypark. A phonecall was made in order to make sure they could accommodate us arriving late. We were assured that the receptionist would be there waiting for us.
They weren’t, but an envelope and key with my name on it was waiting on the desk when we got there. I can only look back and laugh at how gone we were by this point as I recall simply standing in the road in the middle of the night for a good 10 minutes and staring at a sign with what appeared to be a ‘no parking’ symbol above where I had parked the car, in what was a clearly marked parking space. I suppose they can’t crush our car into a cube, it already is one. The room key was marked with a number 2, but the hotel was comprised of several different buildings, so we then spent a further 10 minutes wandering up and down in a daze, trying all the wrong rooms also marked 2, at great personal risk. Finally finding where we supposed to be, up a rickety outdoor wooden staircase, I discovered our actual quarters also had a door down to a basement pulled straight out of a horror movie. I smiled to myself briefly, thinking of all the things that could still go wrong at this point, up to and including death by phantom, locked the door again and promptly passed out.
Well we weren’t due there for at least another two weeks, but at least we could look at rollercoasters from the window in the morning, how many can you spot?
Oh right, rollercoasters. Well that will just have to wait until next time.