Tuesday, December 31, 2013

International Travel Mistakes I Must Never Make Again

I screwed up big time with my travel this christmas. With the Ontario snowstorm, a whole lot of people had it worse, and the good news is that I got to each of my destinations (my parent's house in Canada, and my home in the USA) within 12 hours of my target arrival time. But I missed connections and had to stay overnight in an airport hotel both ways, went through security 6 times and customs 4 times, and both ways my body experienced more stress than it ever has since my thesis defence.

What really stings is that these were all avoidable mistakes, some of them even mistakes that I've made before. I must not make them again.

I planned my departures for later in the day than they needed to be.
I had a 3 pm departure for my long day of westbound travel, which I was pleased about because it seemed nice and relaxed. But that meant that there was no wiggle room for missing flights, which can cascade, and in fact I missed the last flight to my final destination. Then I did the same thing with leaving at 10 am eastbound. Early morning travel to airports suck, but it provides a margin of error. I would even consider red eye flights now, since they have the whole day for delays.

I had more connections than were absolutely necessary.
Every connection you make increases the misery and risk exponentially. I would now pay hundreds more dollars to avoid what I went through happening again.

I connected through snowy places when I didn't have to.
 Does everyone else but me know this tip? In any case this happened to me 3 or 4 years ago with Calgary - why didn't I learn my lesson back then! Thank god I didn't connect through Toronto this year anyway.

I connected through Montreal Airport.
This is only two experiences to go by, but it's enough for me to want to avoid the Montreal airport from now on. Both times that was where I missed my critical connection, and both times I and fellow passengers were given misinformation that resulted in suffering, respectively: 1) standing in a line for 2 hours and 20 minutes, and 2) sprinting for 15 minutes with my carry-on. Both unnecessary, and the latter especially brutal considering a 76 year old priest was given the same advice. A staff member also screwed up my electronic ticket, in a way that caused a delay at my next connection and could have screwed up my return voyage too if the counter person hadn't caught it. Finally, the Montreal airport is the only place I've heard airport staff joke around at the expense of passenger misfortune, and that happened once each way.

I checked baggage for international travel.
If you have a checked bag, when you travel between the US and Canada (and some other types of international travel) you often have to pick up your baggage at the carousel and put it through security. I had a lot of presents to bring there and back, so it would have required some ingenuity to do without checked luggage, but I know for a fact that I would not have missed my connections both ways if it wasn't for the bag. I am definitely buying one of those wheeled maximum-allowed-size carry-on bags, a la George Clooney.

Given that I checked baggage, I made the connections too tight.

Since I'm my own travel agent (and doing a poor job of it), I have the power to decide how much time to leave for my connection. If I have to check luggage, I will leave no less than 90 minutes, ideally 2 hours, on the international leg. Remember that you will also need to go through security again, and potentially also customs.

I gave up on connections before I should have.

After I got my baggage, I saw that it was already the departure time for my flight. However, while I waited in the endless line to rebook my ticket, I noticed that the airplane was delayed 20 minutes, then another 20 minutes. From now on I'm going to proceed directly to the gate no matter what the time says, and only accept that I've missed it from the people at the gate.

I didn't talk to airport staff as much as I should have.

On at least one occasion I was reluctant to get the attention of a harried airport employee, and ended up doing the wrong thing. Ask them questions, early and often - some of them don't know what they're talking about, so you have to double and triple check.

I didn't use a checklist to pack.

I can't believe it, but I forgot to pack the one item besides my passport that I absolutely needed: my work visa. In the weeks before my flight, I remembered to buy presents for all my roommates, and christmas cards for my work mates, but I didn't remember that! If you want to know what happens when you are forced to go through customs with only a printed facsimile of your DS-2019 (because the US postal service lost the international overnight package with the real thing), I will tell you. First of all, as I suspected, it is entirely random and based on the whim of the particular customs official. I know this because I went through US customs at the same airport (the Montreal airport) twice, twelve hours apart. So here are two things that can happen:
  1. The customs official talks to his boss for 30 seconds and then lets you through with a warning.
  2. Your passport and boarding passes are taken away and, without explanation, you are taken to a different area, where you wait for 40 minutes. When you get to see a Department of Homeland Security officer, she threatens you with a $325 fine, disbelieves that the US postal service could have failed, and tells you, "if you're such a smart guy, how could this happen? You are not taking these documents seriously." Once you have grovelled for a sufficiently long time, you are let through (without the fine).
I'm sure there are much worse possibilities. It's all a roll of the dice. So I will use a checklist, that I store between trips and customize for each trip. I will physically check off each item, even if it seems unnecessary. I'm starting my checklist with the things I actually have forgotten on trips, much to my dismay: Visa, underwear, phone charger, swimsuit.

I didn't keep every piece of travel documentation.
I threw out a used boarding pass and my luggage tag, thinking they would only get in the way. However in the nonsense that followed, it turned out they would both have slightly smoothed the way. It's important to keep them organized, but hang on to everything until the journey is done.

Lessons I already knew (because of past screwups):
  • Don't plan multi-airline trips - way too risky. This way Air Canada had responsibility for rebooking my flights and putting me up when I missed my connections.
  • If you are late for a flight, talk to someone about shortcutting the security line.
  • Holiday travel just sucks. Chill as much as you can, and don't depend on arriving at a certain time.
  • Cling to your passport and boarding pass with all your might. I once dropped mine on the causeway of Lester B Pearson airport and was only saved by another passenger happening across it.
My experience this time is enough to almost make me want to go back to travel agents (if they still exist). Once I travelled to a conference instead of a professor and got to use his travel agent, and it was amazing. Not only were all the flights easy and comfortable, she figured out how I could get two nights in Amsterdam with no extra trouble, and all for a $60 fee. Even if I don't try that, I now have a huge respect for travel knowledge - it's easy to book your flights online, but booking them so that it isn't an ordeal is a trick. I paid for this knowledge, and I'm going to hang onto it.

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