London: The Unexpected Stop

Long story short: British Airways can bite me.

During the nine hour flight from Phoenix to Heathrow, I was seated next to a woman with a pharmacy in her purse. Before take-off she took several pills, and she spent the entire flight passed out with her head dangling like a door knocker. She looked just like the woman at the LA Marriott Amy Lerman and I saw get Roofied and removed by ambulance. The woman’s husband was seated in business class but kept coming back to check on her, which involved asking me to poke her until she shook her head up and grunted.

Our first indication that something was wrong on the ground came when we were held on the tarmac for about an hour waiting for a gate. The captain let us know slowly that BA was experiencing a global IT outage and that all flights up to 6 pm were canceled. Our flight to Cape Town was not set to depart until 9:30 pm, so we figured (hoped?) we would be safe.

Once the plane got a gate we had to wait for a jetway. The captain came on the line to let us know they had no way to communicate with ground, and that he and the co-pilot were calling friends and acquaintances to try to get someone to pull the jetway over. My seat mate used this opportunity to sort through and find some more choice pills, which she swallowed with a large slug a of cough syrup straight from the bottle.

Once we finally disembarked, we knew immediately that the situation was worse than we thought. The hallways at Heathrow are usually packed, but this was total chaos. Babies were screaming, Adults were screaming, and there was not a BA employee to be seen. Some Heathrow officials were trying to direct traffic and answer questions, but the only reply they had available was, We don’t know.

The line for customs is always long at Heathrow, but this day it was terrible. We waited for 3 hours in a snaking queue without any food or water. We passed my seat mate about 30 times as we zigged and zagged through, and each time she looked worse and worse, slurring words and barely able to stand. Her husband finally rushed her through to the front of the line. I couldn’t help wondering about their story.

Once we cleared, the scene in baggage claim was like a horror film. People screaming, crying, cussing, and angry. We were told we could not get our luggage then we were handed a letter saying we must leave the airport and do not call. They said check Twitter for updates.

We still didn’t have confirmation that our flight was canceled, but we decided to behave as if it were. So we tried to find a hotel close to the airport so we could get back quickly if another flight came up. Hotels had clearly gotten word and the price surge pushed rooms to $1500 and more. We normally stay at The Ampersand in South Kensington, but it was booked so we found a hotel nearby and took an Uber into town to check in.

The room was comfortable and quiet. We were so hungry, so we headed out to a pub and we were able to catch the end of the Arsenal Versus Chelsea game while eating fish pie. Not too bad. But then, back at the hotel, we spent the next six hours on the phone trying to get any news on how we would get to Cape Town. No one at BA would answer the phone. We tried Chase Bank, who holds our BA Visa, and they were no help. A friend worked from home on getting help from his Centurion Amex folks but they couldn’t book the flight. When we finally got through to an agent, she booked us on the next flight to Cape Town and told us our luggage would be on it.

We got a few hours sleep before getting up and wandering our favorite South Ken streets. We had lunch at one of my favorite local pubs, Bumpkin, then had a beer at The Scarsdale Tavern. We grabbed an Uber to head back to the airport and enjoyed chatting with the Kurdistan driver about US politics.

At the airport, we were amused by the Heathrow employees telling stories about how the previous day the BA employees had hidden like Sean Spicer in the bushes while they did all the work with the public.

Our new flight was delayed an hour, but once we were finally on I watched two movies then fell asleep and woke up in Cape Town.

Here is what I can tell you about cancelled BA flights: If your flight gets canceled and the airline didn’t give you at least 14 days’ notice, they may be required to compensate you, according to EC 261. EU passengers are entitled to as much as €600 for canceled flights, but there are a number of factors that determine both eligibility and compensation amount.

John and I were entitled for compensation, which rendered our round trip tickets to South Africa free.

 

Sixteen Days to Go

I have wanted to go to South Africa pretty desperately ever since our friends Kathryn and Ole told us about their wonderful trip there, and that was maybe 17 years ago? It has been a long time. So it seems impossible (impossibly thrilling) that John and I are living in the month of our departure date!

I am so excited about all of our slated activities. I have printed out the 42 page PDF with all of our reservations and maps between towns. I use the app TripIt to gather all our movements into one easy package. Here is the general motion of the trip:

  • We are using British Airways to fly direct Phoenix to Heathrow, then Heathrow to Cape Town. Usually we use miles to fly, but since this was a far (and cheap) flight, we paid for the trip to get the massive amounts of miles on the cheap.
  • First we are driving out from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, where we are staying for two nights at Spier Wine Farm.
  • Then a flight from Cape Town to Durban, and we will drive out to Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge in Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park for some luxury lodge living and Big Five game drives.
  • We drive back to Durban where we will stay four nights at the Southern Sun Elangeni Maharani for John’s 50th birthday with a celebratory dinner at 9th Avenue Bistro.
  • On June 4th John will run the Comrades Marathon.
  • We decided on two locations in Cape Town so we get a feel for coast and town. We will stay four nights at Rouge on Rose in the Bo Kaap area, then move to the ocean to Cape View Clifton. We have chosen lots of great restaurants and activities for our stay there. One is Foxcroft. Another is Reverie. Can’t wait!

And thanks, British Airways, for this feature that allows me to plan my movies for the 10 and 11.5 hour flights. I have a lot to catch up on!  

First Stop, Venice

I’m just going to put this out there. I think this might have been one of our most challenging trips yet. We knew it was going to be a stretch–we had several conversations about what could go wrong. Let’s face it–the loop we planned to cover would require every transfer to run perfectly. In fact I was so worried about the timing that I created a pdf trip guide that listed every single mode of transportation, reservation, and driving map. The document was 59 pages long. I memorized it, then I had John memorize it too.

How would we possibly cover seven countries, nine hotels, an overnight ferry, and 1300 miles of driving without a hitch? The answer is, delightfully! The entire trip ran smoothly. The hardest hardships were: John had a terrible chest cold, we got a 50 Euro parking ticket not an hour into our visit in Croatia (we called it the Gringo tax), and one of our 30-minute driving segments took two hours due to construction. But otherwise, we hit every mark, and best of all–we got along really well! Hardly an argument to speak of. And if the true test of a relationship is a long road trip, I think John and I have this thing covered.

Here’s how the whole thing went down: our friend Kyle dropped us at the Phoenix airport around 6 pm, and our direct flight from Phoenix to Heathrow was luxurious. We had a totally flat bed on British Airways–it’s a 9 hour flight so that makes all the difference. We transferred Heathrow-Gatwick on a coach I had pre-booked online. Super easy. Then we flew Gatwick-Venice, where we caught a water taxi to our hotel the Sant Antonin. I had written to them for a late check-in, and it all went well, except for the strange internet system that required us to click deep into a menu on the television, and then it never worked anyhow. More on the various internet systems we encountered later.

We were too tired to head out into the cobbles and canals, so we went to sleep to get ready for a lovely day of touring. But what a night we had! Thunder, lightning, rain. We managed to get a touch of rest before breakfast downstairs. I must say the Europeans get this right–they don’t send anyone off into the day without feeding them first. Every one of our nine hotels came with breakfast. This one was nice, though since it was raining they had to move the service from the garden to the tiny dining area, and it was cramped. But we got enough to eat, then headed out to beat the crowds.

We used an App called Triposo that offers walking tours at various distances. The App pointed us to all the right spots, and we hit all the must-see’s in about 2 hours. My favorite destination was the Peggy Guggenheim museum, where her personal residence has been transformed into a refuge for some of the most famous modern artists: think Ernst, Kandinsky, Picasso, Chagall; in short, all my favorites. It was such a treat to visit this museum, even though I felt a touch ethnocentric visiting an American’s home in Italy. We wandered back towards the hotel for lunch since we planned to nap after. At Bacarando Ai Corazzieri we accidentally ordered nearly all the food in the restaurant.

After a long nap, we wandered back out for a little wine at Cantinone Gia’Schiavi and a lovely dinner at Osteria Enoteca Ai Artist. We got a gelato for the walk back the hotel, which was a little touch and go there when the evening flooding crowded off several of our routes back.

What a magical place, Venice.Would we really have to leave? The following morning we enjoyed breakfast in the garden before taking our last stroll through the cobbles, where I stopped to salivate over some dresses in a window. Too bad the shop was closed. We caught a water taxi back to the airport to pick up our rental car so we could make our 4 hour drive to Ancona to catch the ferry to Croatia.

 

 

 

 

 

7 hours to go

UltraLite

Only seven more hours before we take off for our flight to England. We decided to travel UltraLite because we will be in six countries (we are now planning a day trip to Montenegro): England, Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Austria. That means nine hotels, plus an overnight on a ferry.

Here are our 22 inch carry-on rollers. Note the UltraLite Patagonia bags on top. John got his backpack for Christmas from Cindy and Larry, and I was so jealous I bought the tote for myself. I love this thing. It weighs 10 ounces, and it folds into its own little pocket when you’re not using it.

I want to tell you a story about our trip. I taught travel writing online in Summer Session A and I had an amazing variety of very talented writers. One of my students fights pirates in the Indian Ocean. His work was thrilling to read. Another student was traveling in Europe during the six week course. She started in Italy, moved on to Croatia, went to Montenegro, and then to Bosnia.

Her last travel article was a gorgeous and moving 500 word piece about working a dead-end 9-to-5 job where the best part of her day was stopping at McDonald’s each morning for a coffee. After weeks of going through the drive-through, she became friends with the man who served her every morning. He was from a small town in Bosnia and had moved here after political unrest. She enjoyed her interactions with him so much that she started picking up some Bosnian phrases and started greeting him in his home language. They got to talking, and she was so moved by his story she went to visit his hometown during her stay in the region.

Her article gave me goosebumps. It was difficult to respond to as a teacher, because she’s such a talented writer there was very little I could add about craft. Instead I wrote to her, “This travel article makes me really like you as a person, which is the highest compliment I can give to any writer.” She emailed me immediately and said that my comment made her feel good. After a few emails she told me she is spending the month of July in Slovenia. We will be there on July 17 which was my dad’s birthday.

So we have plans to meet for coffee. Seems like this trip is already shaping up to be wonderful.

Phoenix Sister Cities Delegation Visit to Ennis Ireland

John and I love to travel, and at the risk of being repetitive, I’ll explain that we have a promise to each other that each year we will go to a country neither one of us has visited. We started this practice in 1998 and have been going strong for 14 years. This year we will have our 15th anniversary New-to-You-Country-Trip with Sweden in August. We’ll be going to Denmark too but I’ve been there so it doesn’t count towards our promise.

1998 Venezuela
1999 China
2001 Belize
2002 Scotland/Ireland
2003 Costa Rica
2004 Honduras
2005 Argentina
2006 St Lucia
2007 Korea/Thailand
2008 Turks and Caicos
2009 Spain
2010 Peru
2011 Portugal
2012 Tanzania
2013 Denmark/Sweden

But let me tell you something about our trips. With the exception of Buenos Aires, we tend to plan very active vacations that require lots of gear so we usually show up at the airport looking like college kids/ hippies/ vagabonds. That has made preparations for today’s trip a bit challenging. We are required, for once, to Pack Like Grown-Ups.

Packing Like Grown-Ups
Packing Like Grown-Ups

Why the requirement? We’re headed to Ennis Ireland as part of the 25th Anniversary Delegation for the Phoenix Sister Cities. John sits on their board, and we will be representing the good ole US of A at such events as:

What does one wear for dinner with the Mayor? I sure have no idea, so I had to pack several choices. I’ll be updating the blog with plenty of pics so you can see if I succeeded.