Road-trippin’ with strangers

Home sweet home. Ish. Only an hour away. (courtesy Jimmy Emerson, DVM, Flickr)
Home sweet home. Ish. Only an hour away. (courtesy Jimmy Emerson, DVM, Flickr)

After landing at Chicago’s O’Hare airport Sunday afternoon, having taken a beer-induced nap on my flight from Omaha after my friends’ wedding two days earlier, I got a couple text messages from United, telling me my flight had been delayed twice in succession.

With almost four hours up my sleeve, I briefly considered getting the train downtown to have dinner and wander around for awhile to kill some time. I mean, why waste my Sunday in an airport when Chicago is, like, right there?

But I chickened out when I found out the train trip from the airport to the city was over an hour each way, and I didn’t want to miss my flight, so instead I had an overpriced beer and burger at a bar in one of the concourses.

I was two bites through my dinner, and commiserating flight delays with someone sitting next to me, when I got another text.

Flight’s canceled. I’d been re-booked on the next plane to Portland…Monday afternoon at 2:00 p.m.

Well, shit. That just won’t do. But as it turned out, passenger power managed to get me home a lot sooner than that.

I’ve done a ton of flying over the past few years, both at home and in the U.S., yet this was the first time I’ve ever had an itinerary canceled on me. I’ve spent hours waiting out delays in various bars and lounges and not ever been fazed by it, since back home I was a gold frequent flyer and had access to Virgin’s free food-booze-WiFi club.

But this time, I genuinely had no clue whether I’d be charged for the new flight, or whether United was going to put me up in a hotel for the evening.

My bartender gave me fair warning that I should get on top of the whole accommodation issue sooner rather than later, since rooms would be booked out quick-smart if there were more cancellations than just mine. Ugh.

I boxed up my food, grabbed my bag and dashed off to the ticketing counter to see what the scoop was, before I went and dropped a bunch of money on a hotel for the night.

It didn’t take long to strike up conversation with the people standing around me in the queue, all of whom were in the same boat. The guy behind me, Jason, was also heading to Portland, and said his wife had found a hotel room nearby for $75 that he’d be happy to split with me if we couldn’t get a freebie out of United.

That seemed like a solid plan, especially once the United reps told us that because it was a weather cancellation, they don’t cover the cost of hotel rooms, but they did recommend a broker that offered discounts on accommodation for stranded flyers like us.

But mere moments before I resigned myself to spending a night in a shitty airport motel, a third passenger came to the rescue with another solution. I feel awful for not being able to remember her name, although she said it was Espanol for “Grace.” She had switched her ticket for a flight to Boston leaving in an hour or so, and her boyfriend had booked her a rental car that she could drive back to Maine with.

She said she’d be cool with sharing the driving if we could both get on the same flight out that night. The ticketing agent I spoke to said she could only get me a standby spot (another first), but her counterpart took a look at the seating arrangements, quietly assigned us a couple of premium economy seats, and told us not to tell anyone. YOU GOT IT.

So now there was a plan in place that would get me back home and to work on time, rather than four hours late, which was nice. The flight was fairly miserable, given I was hungover, exhausted and had the middle seat, but it was over fairly swiftly. But then there was the matter of driving back.

Given the rental car was under Grace’s name, she was the best candidate to drive, and Jason sat up front navigating. Apparently 1:00 a.m. on Monday morning is right when Boston road crews do their construction work, but after getting detoured and turned around a couple of times, we found our route home and headed north.

On the way back, we made the usual get-to-know-ya small talk that you’d expect, and each shared our favorite travel horror stories and tales of our respective stays in Maine. I spent much of the trip marveling at the situation itself, and wondering whether circumstances would’ve unfolded this way had I been in the same position at home.

I’ve written a couple of times over the past nine months about how I’ve often found people in the U.S. more open and amenable to talking to, and helping out, strangers, although I’m sure there’s a large element of “grass-is-greener” syndrome to that.

I honestly couldn’t imagine getting in a rental car with a couple of strangers back home if, for instance, my flight from Rockhampton to Brisbane was canceled and I needed to get back home for work, but perhaps that’s more to do with having more of a support network in Australia if that had happened and not feeling as much like I’m in it alone.

Once we got back to the airport in Portland to pick up our respective cars, it was almost 3:00 a.m. and I was relieved … until I remembered I had to drive another hour home in awfully foggy conditions. We all had a bit of a laugh at the adventure we’d been on together, and bade each other goodbye.

It was only with the benefit of hindsight – and writing this thing – that I wished I’d traded contact details with Jason and Grace, if only to say a more awake thank-you for having me along for the ride. They did both mention that they’d look up my column though, so maybe they’ll stumble across this post at some stage.

So if you ARE reading this one guys, thanks again. And drop me a line – if we cross paths again, I’ll buy you a beer.


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