Tuesday 18 May 2010
May 18, 2010
Elk Grove, California
Perhaps no trip abroad is complete without some misadventure getting home. There was the frantic cross country train ride in Germany to retrieve a lost passport hours before returning home and an immigration detention upon return from Guatemala. Fortunately, our latest mishap turned out to be profitable.
Manuela and I checked into the Formula 1 at Charles De Gualle airport Sunday (May 16), the night before our noon flight home. Formula 1 is a new chain of economy hotels. Our room (for up to three people) was just $45, about 1/3 of our other Paris hotel rooms. It was very clean and new, but also very small. The shared toilets and showers off the hall were clearly designed for low maintenance – the toilet and floor were molded from a single piece of plastic and there was no toilet seat. It was cheap, but functional.
Formula 1 Hotel, Paris
We arrived at Charles De Gualle airport early Monday morning (May 17) only to learn that all flights to London were cancelled due to volcanic activity. We were supposed to fly from London direct to San Francisco and arrive at 5:00 PM. After waiting in a long line, British Airways was able to re-book us on an American Airlines flight to Chicago with a connection to San Francisco arriving about 7:00 PM.
A later arrival would inconvenience our friends, Stephany and Kelly, who graciously planned to pick us up at the BART station in Dublin after work but we had no choice. At the American Airlines desk we learned our first flight was delayed two hours, so we would not be able to make the connection. They found us a later connection on a United Airlines flight arriving in San Francisco at 11:00 PM. Besides putting out our friends even more, I was worried BART would stop running before we reached San Francisco and we might have to spend a night in the city. Stephany kindly offered to pick us up at the airport if necessary.
The eight hour flight to Chicago wasn’t too bad. We lucked out and got two exit row seats with a bulk head in front of us; we had a bit more room than normal and could put our feet up. After landing, Manuela had to endure the standard inquiries at immigration – Why are you in the U.S. again? Are you planning to look for work? What does your boyfriend do?
Unfortunately, her answer to that last question didn’t get the positive response it got me. Her agent was not impressed. Along with the standard inquires (who were you visiting, etc.), my immigration agent also asked about my occupation. When I said “police sergeant,” he handed me my passport and said, “Enough with these B.S. questions. Welcome home, Sarge.”
Passing through customs was much easier. When we re-checked our luggage at the United Airlines counter, the agent told us the flight was very overbooked, but our seats were guaranteed. On the way to the departure gate I commented to Manuela that airlines often offer compensation to passengers willing to give up their seats on overbooked flights, up to and including free round trip tickets. I’ve been offered credit vouchers on other overbooked flights, but it was never enough or there was a connection to make.
At the departure gate we learned the flight would be delayed about 30 minutes, making it impossible for us to catch the last BART train. There were 159 names on the standby list for our flight and they were asking for confirmed passengers to give up their seats. Manuela was skeptical.
At the gate desk, Nancy, the extremely pleasant United agent considering the crowd of people converging on her, beamed a huge smile when I asked what she was offering.
“Round trip ticket anywhere in the 48 states that United flies.”
She added that we would be put up at the Hilton Hotel for the night, give us $30 in food vouchers, and put on the 6:30 AM flight. With no connection to be make and the prospect of reaching San Francisco at 9:30 AM instead of midnight, I was ready to hand over my ticket. But I had to convince Manuela. We both said several times in the past few days that living out of a suitcase was getting tiresome.
“Get her up here. I’ll convince her,” Nancy said.
She did just that. Instead of arriving in San Francisco at midnight Monday night, we would arrive at 9:00 AM Tuesday with two free round-trip tickets anywhere! Staying at a Hilton was just the icing on the cake, or so I thought. Departing at 6:30 AM meant an early rising and we were already exhausted. I asked Nancy if we could take a later flight.
“There is an 8:30 AM flight, but all I have is coach.”
Manuela and I looked at each other, slightly puzzled.
“What do you have on the 6:30 flight?” I asked.
As we walked across the concourse to the Hilton Manuela and I kept looking at each other and giggling. We had difficulty believing it was true and we immediately began discussing possible destinations.
Hilton O’Hare Hotel, Chicago
The Hilton O’Hare, just a ten minute underground walk from the terminal put us up in a huge room, large enough to fit all three of our Paris hotel rooms. We slept just a few hours, spent the limit of our food vouchers at the airport Starbucks ($30 doesn’t go far in an airport terminal), and were ready to fly home early Tuesday morning (May 18). That flight was also booked and I wanted to ask about further compensation, but Manuela said enough was enough. (Nancy told us it’s possible to repeatedly surrender seats and get multiple free tickets).
I was slightly disappointed with our first class seats. We were unable to sit together, the seats didn’t fully recline, and they were forward of the cabin door. That meant economy passengers didn’t pass through first class and I didn’t get to enjoy their envious stares! We finally got home early Tuesday afternoon.
I’d heard so many horror stories about the French that I went to Paris expecting to dislike it. But I enjoyed it immensely. Paris is a wonderful city and the people were pleasant. Shop owners, waiters, even strangers on the street were friendly and helpful. I wonder if the authors of those horror stories were polite guests in France. “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame,” is a far more gracious greeting than “Do you speak English?”
Manuela asked me what French clichés I found to be true. Baguettes really are the staple of the French diet. Every morning we saw people walking down the street clutching a baguette from the local patessirie. The other cliché about Paris is that it is the most romantic city in the world. It is, but not just the hand-holding kind of romance. It’s the amazing sights, the rich history, and the beautiful culture. Paris really is trés romantique!
Where to next?