The Not-So-Happy Traveler

Not too long ago, I read an article in the New York Times that basically debunked the myth of travel writers leading exotic and glamorous lives, which for a long time I’d pretty stupidly assumed was full of private jets and mega-yachts by day and sparkly champagne cocktail parties by night.  Apparently, the truth is that travel writers get paid next to nothing and are often inserted into dangerous, dirty or downright boring situations and locations.  (Someone had to write the Fodor’s guide on Wyoming, after all.)  The most horrifying part, apparently, according to the Times, was that sometimes a writer’s laptop computer will break, and they’re subsequently forced to write their notes in a notebook.  “How quaint,” you’re probably thinking.  I know it surprised me to learn that in this day and age, people still know how to operate pencils and paper.

I actually considered pursuing a career as a travel writer for a while, but because I’m a lazy and mediocre writer on my best days, it probably wouldn’t have been an ideal career decision, generally because I tend to like being able to buy food and also expensive things that I can’t really afford, regardless of what my job is.  But I do enjoy the travel portion of my current job.  From time to time, my boss (“the big boss,” I mean) will do various events wherein he’ll sign books, give talks, and so on, and I’ll often be dispatched to these events to take photographs, shoot video or something along those lines.  It’s a lot of fun, generally speaking, just because when I was growing up my parents never took us on vacation anywhere that was more than 4 hours away (less—much less—if at all possible) by car.  We never flew anywhere because my dad is a minister and gets paid no money, and plane tickets for just one person are expensive enough—so for five, it would’ve been virtually impossible.  Had we spent money on plane tickets, I imagine that the vacation would’ve consisted of boarding an airplane to someplace horrid like Tri-Cities, Tennessee, getting off, waiting several hours at the airport (perhaps we might get a package of peanuts at the newsstand, but probably not, just because my mother would be shocked and horrified at having to spend $2 on a bag of legumes), and then boarding another flight right back home.

That said, it’s probably hardly surprising to learn that our accommodations were generally “modest,” at best.  My mother considered a hotel room that was more than $60 a night or so to be “extravagant.”  We still haven’t let her forget the time that she’d made a reservation for us at a Cricket Inn–a sort of crappy trucker motel that makes Motel 6 or Super 8 look like the Four Seasons–somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina, probably because she found a coupon for it somewhere.  We kicked in the door to our room (not because we wanted to, but because it wouldn’t open) only to discover that it reeked of cigarette smoke and that there was a dingy, noxious yellow-brown film on every conceivable surface.  Looking at the beds you’d think that the hotel didn’t own a single washing machine, especially since it appeared that a serial killer had murdered several individuals on each bed and then painstakingly made sure that the victims’ blood had been evenly distributed across the sheets.  Fortunately, all of us, including my mother, were appalled, and so we left (the be-nose-ringed girl at the front desk basically shrugged and said “whatever” when she learnt we weren’t staying).   Instead, we went across the street to a Holiday Inn that probably cost about $10 more a night, but that was roughly six thousand times better in quality.

So with that in mind, you can probably imagine why I still get a kick out of using the company credit card to make my own travel reservations.  I can literally stay at any hotel I want (within reason, of course) and take any flight I want (again, within reason).  It’s gotten to the point now where my criteria for selecting a hotel are twofold.  First, there must be a mini-bar.  Even if I don’t use it, I want the option of using it.  The idea of becoming stinking drunk from consuming a variety of small airline-type bottles of liquor is extremely appealing to me, especially in theory, for some reason.  Even if there isn’t even any liquor in the thing, it’s OK—I can still help myself to a Snickers and pretend that there’s alcohol in it and that I’m just being a good boy and abstaining.  But if the mini-bar is absent entirely… well, clearly the hotel is of low quality and does not deserve to be graced by my radiant presence.

Secondly, I like to be very close to wherever it is that I’m going to be working.  Because I live in New York, I like walking to places.  You gain a certain perspective of a city on foot that you can’t get otherwise.  This rule is waived, however, if we are referring to San Francisco.  Not only does that city contain some of the steepest and most brutal hills I’ve ever trodden upon in my life, but it contains an inordinately high number of homeless people and panhandlers that operate quite differently than they do in New York.

In the Big Apple, you see, the homeless merely sit there and fester quietly; generally they don’t get right in your face and demand “contributions.”  This isn’t the case in San Francisco, where a toothless black man screamed something in my face about “gee-longs” (I think?—he was largely incomprehensible) while shaking a McDonald’s cup half-full of pennies next to my ear.  I don’t really feel guilty when I lie to panhandlers in order to avoid giving them money, but in this case I felt absolutely no remorse at all.  The man reeked of what I choose to believe was garlic (perhaps a garlicky aioli spread, even), which subsequently led me to believe that he probably had eaten better meals that day than I had.

Rare indeed is the city that is pedestrian-friendly in the slightest.  Seattle, for instance (which, by the way, is very pretty but incredibly boring), is virtually impossible to walk around in, with the smallish exception of limited parts of the “downtown” area in the vicinity of the Pike Place Market.  For example, I stayed at a hotel in the “Lake District” neighborhood (whose dominant feature was a large and busy-looking cancer research center); from there, I planned to walk to the Space Needle and the Seattle Center, which, according to my map, were about a mile away.  I walk more than that on an average workday, so I thought it’d be no big deal.  Unfortunately this was not the case.  The sidewalk outside the hotel seemed promising at first, but after a few thousand feet, it suddenly stopped at a set of stairs and I had no choice but to go down into an open cut where the sidewalk butted directly up against a major highway and simultaneously narrowed to approximately one foot wide.

As I walked as briskly as I could to get back up out of this ravine, operating on the stupid but lucky assumption that there’d be a similar staircase at the other end, I had to step over two drunk hobos who were lying on the tiny sidewalk in a crumpled, dangerous-looking heap, entangled with two bicycles and what appeared to be a significant amount of tattered duct tape remnants.  I don’t know how they ended up like that or where the tape came from; I thought it wiser not to ask.  They were also drinking giant bottles of beer, and they yelled at me as if I’d just tried to shoo them away with a broom.  One of them actually attempted to get up to follow me, but seemed to give up when he wasn’t able to disengage his leg from the spokes of his bicycle wheel.

I did, fortunately, make it to the Space Needle.  Maybe it was just me (I’m very bitter, picky and snooty, you see), but I was underwhelmed by the whole experience.  Here’s a hint—if you eat in the “revolving restaurant” at the top of the thing, be prepared to pay roughly $25 for an appetizer and double to triple that for a main course of non-exceptional mid-high-end restaurant quality–think Morton’s Steakhouse but notably less interesting and good.  Also, don’t stand up too quickly if you need to go to the bathroom, especially if you have some kind of inner ear condition; you very well may lose your balance and fall flat on your face because the floor rotates constantly.  This did not happen to me, I assure you [1].

* * *

I mention all of this as an extended and wholly irrelevant preamble to my story about my most recent work-related outing.  I had about two days’ notice to find and book a flight, hotel room and car rental for a trip to Los Angeles to take photographs at a book-signing event.  Unfortunately the least expensive flight I could find was still close to $500, which is pushing it for a junior-grade employee’s travel expenditures.  Suddenly, however, after accidentally clicking on an ill-timed pop-up ad, I found myself on the website for “Spirit Airlines,” which I’d never heard of.  I was especially wary when the total fare came to approximately $200, but my friend Aaron insisted that they were OK and that their business class service (which it turns out that they don’t actually have–they’re just slightly larger seats that are spaced out a bit) was acceptable.  I was in a bind so I bought the ticket.

Things didn’t really start out on the right foot when I arrived at the airport initially.  I’d just started driving a new car (well, it’s a used car, but you know what I mean), and moments after I pulled into the long-term parking lot at the airport, I discovered that the driver’s side window refused to roll up.  I could press the button and the window would raise a fraction of an inch before the window motor inside the door would conk out—and the window stopped cold.  No amount of tugging at the window would coax it out, either.  Eventually, though, the window came to its senses once I started begging and pleading with it and offering it bribes, such as weekly cleaning (like that’s actually going to happen—sucker!).

Once the car had been secured, I actually made it through check-in and security with time to spare (a minor miracle), and we boarded the plane as expected.  However, once we taxied away from the gate, it seemed like we sat on the tarmac for an awfully long time.

Bing!

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking… just wanted to let you know that Detroit is locked down because of some inclement weather there, and we’re just waiting for that hold to clear.”

I figured that was fair enough.  It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of such a thing happening, so I just relaxed the best that I could until…

Bing!

“Uh… ladies and gentlemen, just wanted to let you know that the mafugmahumm detapementator has just exploded, and we’re going to have to go back to the gate so that they can fix it.”

At this point I was starting to get concerned.  I only had roughly an hour and a half layover in Detroit before getting on my connecting flight to Los Angeles, so I asked the flight attendant what was going to happen with my connecting flight.  She helpfully informed me that she didn’t know and also that she couldn’t find out, and then offered me a non-complimentary non-alcoholic beverage. (Wha?!)

So we rolled back to the gate.  Technicians boarded and a whirl of paperwork occurred, and within fifteen minutes we’d pushed back again and were once again… waiting in line.

Bing!

“Ladies and gentlemen… we’re still locked down because of the weather, and it’s going to be another thirty minutes before we get another update.  But I do have some good news for those of you on connecting flights to the West Coast.  We spoke to the company and your flights will be held in protected status, so you’ll be able to make it out with just a little bit of a delay.”

You can probably imagine the groans that were heard throughout the cabin at that point.  But, what could we do?  We were locked inside a pressurized metal tube sitting several tens of feet above the ground—too far to jump without breaking a leg or arm or face.  At the very least, I knew my connecting flight would be waiting for me in Detroit, so I tried to relax as best I could.  We all patiently waited the stated half-hour; I spent the majority of the time contemplating the Spirit Airlines “logo,” which consists of the word “Spirit” in capital letters with the letter “S” in a red box.  It’s an entirely uninteresting logo and doesn’t really even seem to have much of anything to do with aviation; it’s one of those crappy logos that you half-expect to hear that some executive assistant whipped up in Microsoft Paint.

Bing!

“Got some bad news, ladies and gentlemen.  We’re going to be on the ground for another fifty minutes before we get another weather update.”

There was a pause here.

“Oh, and by the way, for those of you who are on connecting flights, the company has released those, so you’re not going to be able to make your connections.”

This was not the announcement I was hoping for.  This was the point in time where the passengers would have turned into a mob of angry villagers wielding torches and pitchforks, had either of those items not been prohibited by the TSA.  Instead, people began screaming, “Boo!” and “You suck!” and throwing food and wastepaper at the cockpit door.  Additionally, someone apparently requested to go back to the gate so that he or she or they could get off the plane, but about four seconds later, there was yet another Bing! and the captain came on with some good news (kind of, I guess, if you’re some kind of weirdo who would actually desire to go to Detroit).

“Ladies and gentlemen, we just got word that we’re cleared for departure, so we’re going to be taking off in about one minute.  Those folks that wanted to get off the plane need to decide now what they want to do.”  You can imagine the cacophonous screaming and yelling that happened—virtually everyone on the flight started screaming, “Go!” at the cockpit door, and as if by magic, the plane propelled itself forward.

So shortly thereafter we were off the ground, roughly two hours later than we were supposed to be.  I asked the flight attendant if she’d ask the captain whether or not we’d actually make our connecting flights.  She dutifully phoned him and told me that he was contacting the company, and that hopefully we’d hear something soon.  I did the best that I could to relax, considering that I was headed to Detroit against my will, and after a half-hour of waiting, we got the bad news—that the connecting flights were long gone.  “But it’s not all bad news,” the flight attendant (whose name was Bambi or Daisy or something equally perky) said.  “They aren’t just going to leave you stranded there.  They’ll get you booked on another flight and everything will be OK.” I wasn’t sure if she was being condescending or if she thought I was ten, which could very well have been the case.

Fast forward to our touchdown in Detroit.  I knew something was wrong when we taxied by the terminal—most of the lights were turned off, there were virtually no planes at any of the other gates, and there appeared to be no one inside the terminal.  Once the door was opened, I raced off the plane to the gate agent and asked where I needed to go to be rebooked on another flight to Los Angeles.  She merely smiled plastically at me and said, “Go on up to the ticket counter.  We have hotel and food vouchers for you!”

I ran, not walked, to the ticket counter, where the first thing out of my mouth was, “Get me out of here and to Los Angeles.”  The ticket agent that I’d cornered was a mousy Hispanic man who seemed to have no real comprehension of the urgency behind my request.  “One second,” he said, with all the enthusiasm of someone who’s been informed that he has lupus.  He typed something into the computer and after several minutes of non-enthusiastic consultation with their system, he told me that I’d been rebooked on a flight departing the next day.  “At 6:45 PM.”

While you might not have entirely gotten this impression, I am generally a fairly non-confrontational person.  I don’t like screaming in the first place because my voice becomes high-pitched and feminine, and then I lose my voice.  Plus, when I get agitated, my innate Southern accent comes pouring out almost involuntarily, which I don’t like, because it makes me sound like I’m stupid.  (Never mind the fact that I may actually be stupid.  That’s entirely beside the point here.)  So I try and remain rational in stressful situations because the last thing I want to be known as is the Screaming Southern Belle.  In this situation, however, I was outraged.  I’d never been forced to stay overnight in a strange city against my will, especially not one whose primary claim to fame is the production of automobile components.  So I got indignant, and snotted that the flight offered was absolutely unacceptable—I was to be taking photographs at an event the next night at that time, and I didn’t particularly care to be fired because the incompetent airline had delayed me for over 24 hours.  I tried asking this completely unenthusiastic gentleman whether there was any possibility of getting on another airline, when I was informed that Spirit Airlines has no reciprocal agreements with any other airlines, so no, that wouldn’t be possible.  I was hardly surprised.

Just then, a short woman with bountiful breasts that were each the same size as her head began screaming my name and waving some slips of paper in the air.  I could only assume that those were the aforementioned hotel vouchers, so I stepped over to her.  Turns out that she was the supervisor on duty, so I voiced the same complaints again.  She went so far as to claim that they’d already checked all the other airlines and that not a single one of them had a flight the next day to Los Angeles that wasn’t already full.  That sounded like a pantsful of crap to me, so I indignantly pulled out my laptop, plopped it down on the ticket counter, and with just a few clicks discovered that everything she had just told me was absolutely false–there were at least a half-dozen flights to Los Angeles leaving well before noon the next morning.

So, of course once I learned this, I announced loudly to the thirty-some people behind me in line that I was going to purchase a ticket for myself on another airline for early the next day.  This is exactly what I did, too; in fact, I was typing my credit card information in as I was yelling at my fellow passengers, and a number of individuals came running up to me asking for the flight information so they could try and get on the same flight as me.  Obviously, the customer service representative was dumbfounded.  She immediately went about processing a refund for my ticket, handed me my hotel voucher and shooed me away.

While I didn’t especially feel triumphant, considering that it was my Discover card I’d just charged a second airline ticket to (I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that I could get reimbursed by the company), I did at least feel vindicated.  Finished, at least for the night, at the airport, I headed out to the hotel shuttle to the Detroit Metro Airport Ramada along with a number of other disgruntled passengers, none of whom seemed satisfied with the airline’s response to our delay—and understandably so, I’d say.  Getting a free overnight stay in Detroit isn’t exactly like winning a trip to Tahiti on The Price Is Right. 

We were hardly welcomed with open arms at the Ramada; the two clerks working the front desk were two of the most vitriolic and bitter women I’ve ever interacted with.  One of them actually removed the gigantic bowl of presumably free peppermint candies from the desk and threw it somewhere under the counter, out of reach.  I can’t entirely blame them.  For one thing, they lived and worked in Detroit, which would almost certainly lead me to terminate my own life, were I doomed to such an existence; also, I can’t imagine that they were particularly thrilled with the generous $39 per head that the airline was apparently paying them to house each of us for the evening. (Then again, it was a Ramada, which I frequently confuse with the Radisson, despite the two being about as similar as Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid.)

After what seemed like an unnecessarily lengthy hotel registration process, I was finally given a key (an actual key—I didn’t even know hotels did that anymore) to my room, which was roughly of the same quality and size as a low-end state college’s average dorm room, “enhanced” with (cheap) wallpaper and (extremely cheap) carpet.  The bed was covered with one of those “budget” hotel comforters made from 90% polyester and 10% styrofoam, featuring a reasonably unattractive muddy-colored flower print pattern.  The mattress beneath this miscarriage of home fashion, which felt like it was filled with bags of sand, was terrible; had the hotel arranged to drape a sheet over an outcropping of rocks for me to sleep on, I might’ve been more comfortable.

The airline had also helpfully given us each a number of “food vouchers,” none of which featured any kind of a face value.  It didn’t turn out to be much of an issue, as the only restaurant in the vicinity of the hotel was the dreadfully named “Cottage Inn Pizza,” which involuntarily made me think of the word frottage, a word which has no right being anywhere near the word “pizza.”  It took nearly forty-five minutes for my small pizza to arrive, and when it did, the driver had forgotten to bring along some sort of slip that I was required to sign.  Rather stupidly, he asked “Are you going to be here a while?”

“As much as I’d like to say ‘no,’ I’ll be here all night,” I said, and back to the restaurant he went.  He did return some time later, which was a semi-welcome diversion (for approximately fifteen seconds) from the fun time I was having watching some locally-produced infomercial, which was the only thing on television that wasn’t completely obscured by static.  Belly finally full, I went to bed… I only had four hours to kill before my flight on Frontier Airlines took off for Denver the next morning—with the ultimate goal in mind of getting to Los Angeles at some point the next day.

* * *

My wake-up call was scheduled for 4 AM, and sure enough, the phone rang.  Generally, I’m quite a heavy sleeper [2], and have a bit of trouble yanking myself out of the bed in the mornings, but in this instance I was so anxious to get out of the state of Michigan that I practically bolted upright and leapt out of bed.

I’d not really unpacked at all, so it only took me a few minutes to put myself together and get out the door.  The hotel’s airport shuttle arrived out front a few minutes later, and out of the driver’s seat climbed a large round man with a small, silly-looking goatee, dressed in an ill-fitting dress shirt and jacket with a tie that was proportionally much too small for his body.  He eagerly helped the two of us who were waiting with our luggage, and then climbed back into the driver’s seat, but not before gesticulating towards the door handle and looking at me.  “Would you mind, uh…”  He waggled his finger at the bus door.

“I’m sorry?” I said, not quite sure what he was asking me to do.

“Well, y’see,” he began, immediately surprising me, because I didn’t realize that people who were native to Michigan had Southern accents, but apparently they do [3].  “Some woman broke the dag-gum door, and we’s a-waitin’ on a replacement motor for it from Japan.  ’T-ain’t but one cumpnee that makes them thangs, and they costs a thousand bucks.  So we’s holdin’ it closed with them there bungee cords.”  He nattered on for some time about how the woman had refused to pay for the damage she’d caused, but I wasn’t really listening.  Instead, I was evaluating the damage for myself.  Sure enough, there were two short bungee cords dangling from the handrail; dutifully, I clipped them to the bar across the door and then securely fastened my seatbelt, grasping my luggage firmly.

We rocketed out of the hotel drive, leaving a distinct odor of burnt rubber behind us.  We hadn’t gone an eighth of a mile before the driver began propelling us directly towards every other vehicle that we encountered.  There were at least six instances where I was almost certain that we were going to die.  At one point, I swear the bus was up on just two wheels; as we careened around corners and veered past vehicles that were less than a tissue’s width away from us, the bungee-corded door repeatedly flew open nearly a foot, prompting me to clench my luggage (and my buttocks) in sheer terror.  The whole petrifying experience was not enhanced by the generously proportioned bus operator who continually jostled merrily up and down in the front seat, singing along badly to—and I wish I was making this up—a country song entitled “Honky Tonk Badonk-A-Donk.”

Fortunately, my co-passenger and I were delivered to the airport in record time; I easily made my flight which would put me in Los Angeles just in the nick of time, even with the fifteen-minute delay–but the Frontier captain, unlike the douche nozzle working for Spirit, was deeply apologetic and changed some setting on the in-seat entertainment console things so that we could all watch movies for free as a way to apologize. It made the flight (pardon the pun) fly by.

So the moral of the story is a simple one: Never, ever hesitate to spend your company’s money.

—2006

  1. Lie.[]
  2. My former college roommate Sean can attest to this, as can my sister, who once attempted to insult me by saying, “Ryan, you go unconscious when YOU sleep.” But back to Sean. Apparently he and one of the guys from down the hall once tried to wake me from a nap by banging two pots together, but I didn’t move.  My roommate later said, “We thought you were probably dead.”  Asked why he didn’t bother to further investigate my well-being, he comfortingly answered, “Because I wanted all A’s for the semester.” My friend Claire, who I have traveled with extensively, has similar stories; apparently she once threw water on me, and since it didn’t rouse me, I had no idea it had even happened until she told me later.[]
  3. “Rednecks are everywhere,” one of my friends once observed, before sighing and taking a very large swig of some alcoholic beverage.[]