If you can't trust the people to whom you entrust your life when flying or sailing, who can you trust? One of our most-planned trips ever proved you can't trust anybody! For us, that now includes American Airlines, British Airways, their sometime baggage handler Havas, hoary Holland America Line and their fairly new owner Carnival Lines. Even the Wisconsin travel insurer fell apart when we needed them.
Savoring our new retirement, we immediately booked what sounded like a wham-bang cruise on Holland America Line's MS Rotterdam. We'd never felt the cruise muse, but this one went from Athens through the Bosporus and Dardanelles to Istanbul and Black Sea ports in Bulgaria, at Odessa and Sebastopol, past romantic-novel Russian dachas on Black Sea beaches and back out to Rhodes and the Pyramids of Egypt. Who could resist?
The cruise was to start in Athens, so we let American Airlines schedule our flight from Madison, Wisconsin, in plenty of time to catch the ship. They routed us to London's Heathrow airport, where (two hours later) their "One World" partner British Airways would take us to Athens. Rank innocents, we pre-booked and pre-paid for everything, from trip insurance to Holland America's port-of-call sightseeing jaunts, so we wouldn't have a vacation worry. For the next few months, we sat back and anticipated the fun.
Departure date arrived, with blue skies forecast for during the whole flight. We checked through to Athens our two suitcases (small for Frank's clothes, large for Judi's and our non-carryon sundries) and the plane left on time. Our connection at O'Hare was ready to leave on time, but that's when Hell began its rise. American Airlines had boxed in our plane with two others. Our pilot couldn't pull away to take off until they did. It took half an hour to move them. Having lost our place in the O'Hare take-off queue, we now had to wait 45 minutes in line.
Ah, you say, pilots can pick up time over the Atlantic. Ours made up precisely 5 minutes.
Just before we landed, a steward announced, "Please remain seated unless you have a tight connection. Those with tight connections, please go to the Flight Transfer Desk." That meant us, since we now had 70 minutes to take-off for Athens. It must have also meant most others on the huge 777, because they all tried to shove their way out of the plane and to the designated desk. "We must make our flight to get on our cruise!" we implored the steward. "Don't worry, a flight leaves for Athens every hour," she assured us.
There's a reason London's Heathrow was voted the second worst airport in the world. Reaching the flight transfer desk took 10 minutes, shoving and being shoved all the way. There we learned (1) our next flight left from another terminal, reachable only by bus, (2) we'd have to go through Security again at the next terminal, and (3) nobody at AA or British Airways cared whether we missed our flight and therefore our cruise.
We got to the line for the bus and saw it was 3 buses long, they left every 5 minutes, and the ride was 10 minutes. In desperation, still hoping to make the plane, we played Ugly American and crashed the line. Miraculously, we arrived with a full 30 minutes before take-off.
Did you know that airlines, not governments, set up and bankroll the Security line configurations at major airports? To the left, at Terminal 1, was the 2-person line for first-class and business ticket-holders, guarded by a burly fellow who doesn't care how many flights you miss. To the right was the wheelchair line. Between was a huge snake of what seemed like 500 hyperanxious steerage passengers, kept in their place by a series of stanchions and straps. Seizing on a break in the strapping, we crashed that line too. We were through Security with 10 minutes to flight time. But we didn't know what gate the flight left from. We looked for a flight board -– and saw another Flight Connections desk, which was shared by BA and AA. We went to BA to find out and were told, "You missed your flight."
But what about the next one? Sorry, she said, none until the next day. "But our AA attendant said there's an Athens flight every hour."
Who do you trust?Okay, so we weren't fated to board our ship in Athens. We'd see the Bosporus and the Dardanelles on the ship's way back out of the Black Sea. "Reroute us to Istanbul, our next port of call."
Partner or not, British Airways couldn't change our ticket since AA had set it up. "You'll have to get in line at the AA desk next door." We stood in that line.
AA cheerfully agreed to reroute us to Istanbul. "But our luggage -- can we have it rerouted, too?" Sure, she said and scurried over to the BA desk. Lo and behold, five minutes after the BA desk told us our flight had already left, this woman worked a miracle. She said she'd retrieved both suitcases from the "already left" flight to Athens.
Who do you trust?
Thinking nothing else could go wrong, we cell-phoned "sorry, please cancel" to the Athens driver we'd reserved to take us to the ship. Then we reached out to Holland America Line, having carefully copied in all four phone numbers they'd provided online and in all their literature for passengers needing help with airline screw-ups, lost luggage, missed flights and other emergencies: an 800 number, a non-800, a "24-hour emergency line" and a direct number to phone the ship Rotterdam.
We phoned then. We phoned later. We phoned on arrival in Istanbul and several times more. We got no answer except once. That time, a baritone identified himself as a Seattle answering service and told us that Holland America doesn't help with luggage, schedules, late planes or any of those kinds of problems, period. "Go away," was the message we heard.
Who do you trust?
In Istanbul, despite our qualms, the little suitcase actually did arrive on our plane. Unsurprisingly, the large one did not. BA's lost-suitcase agency here, called Havas, was busy and seemed efficient. We filled out forms, showed luggage tags, and suggested that the bag had most likely flown to Athens. We were assured, repeatedly, that it would be rerouted and delivered right to our hotel next day, as soon as it arrived in Istanbul.
Athens to Istanbul takes the ship Rotterdam two days, so we had next day free. Our hotelier said they'd surely accept our new luggage, so we went sight-seeing. Back at the hotel, our suitcase hadn't arrived. We phoned Havas. "Sorry, it is coming on the midnight flight. We will deliver it to your hotel." No, we said, we'd be boarding the ship early the next morning -- though it wasn't leaving port until 6 PM. "Oh, then we'll deliver it to the ship." We took her name, phone extension, and everything else we could think to ask, so we could follow up.
We also tried Holland America's phones again -- and this time we did reach a live HAL representative -- in Seattle. "Where was everybody?" we asked. Sorry, she said, but their entire computer system (including the phones) had been down world-wide the previous day or so, otherwise we'd have received their help.
"Our computer was down." Heard that one before? Funny, but when we did finally climb on board the ship, the Chief of Reservations said that nobody there had any computer troubles in the past few days.
Who do you trust?
Next morning we boarded the Rotterdam, where HAL's official Passenger Services representative greeted us. We had prepaid for a 9-to-5 sightseeing trip in Istanbul -- should we go or wait for our luggage, we asked, anxious to make sure it arrived. Do go on the trip, she assured us, she'd make sure it arrived. We needn't phone Havas again or take the precaution of shopping in Istanbul for new duds. (Remember, all Judi's clothes were in that suitcase.) She took down all the details about the suitcase, and we felt a weight lifted.
Back on board at 5:30, we rushed to our stateroom so Judi could change from the ratty clothes and sneakers she'd flown in and worn three days. No dice -- no lost luggage greeted us. We phoned the passenger services desk. "What luggage?" they asked. We asked for the Passenger Services rep. Oops, (obviously having forgotten all about it), "Let me check." So much for her morning promises. She phoned back to report (as if to soothe!) that four other passengers' lost luggage had been delivered that day. "Wasn't yours?" Looking out our porthole, we saw water moving. The ship was leaving Istanbul! "What should we do?" we asked, Judi finally having broken down into sobs. She had three solutions:
One, she's spoken with Istanbul's Harbor Master and he'd get the suitcase from the airport, keep it until we came back out of the Black Sea, and bring it out to the Rotterdam himself when he came to guide us back through the Dardanelles five days later.
Two, meanwhile we could avail ourselves of the ship's costly Express Laundry service, in by 9 back by 5. Sure, we could just imagine Judi wandering the Rotterdam decks au natural while the one outfit she wore was washed.
And three, we could try the ship's two clothing shops up next to the casino, one for sportsware, the other for finery. She'd put through a $50 credit toward our purchase.
The finery shop's stock consisted of costume jewelry, formal wear, and furs. In the sports shop, we did find a $42 top that fit. (DAM Ships, it said across the pocket. We found the logo very fitting indeed!) We found a $48 pair of men's shorts, size 38, that were just a bit large. And we found a $68 skin-tight dress that ended above the knees. (Judi wore it once and ran for her jacket to cover up! She'll never again scoff at those sight-seeing matrons in teeny bopper dresses. Maybe their luggage got lost, too!)
Sorry, no underwear or shoes either place, not even sandals.
Five days later, that was us hanging over the Rotterdam's side watching for the Harbor Master. The suitcase arrived, along with 5 chocolates and a sorry note from HAL. Elated, Judi threatened to change clothes thrice a day to wear everything she'd packed.
One item was missing from the suitcase: Judi's reserve bottle of prescription painkillers. But she'd carried-on enough to get her through the cruise, so there was no real problem. We thought.
We phoned the on-board medical office and explained our predicament. Sorry, an assistant said, they had none of that medication on board. "Okay, just write us a prescription and I'm sure an Athens pharmacy will fill it." Sorry, they couldn't do that either.
We remembered that we had bought Traveler's Insurance from TravelGuard. It covered just such emergencies. We phoned them and their doctor promised to phone us back within the hour with the name of an English-speaking Athens physician who'd write us a prescription. We gave him the name of our ship, its direct phone number, our stateroom number, etc.
Who do you trust?
We waited two hours in the stateroom. No call. We checked our messages later. No call ever came from them. Happily, an Athens pharmacy refilled our prescription with no hassles. And TravelGuard refunded our entire premium when, after we were home, we phoned to complain, "Why didn't you phone us?"
They had tried, just not hard enough when the ship's number still didn't work (remember, the one we'd tried to phone two weeks before when their computer was allegedly out?).
Is trust obsolete?
Franklynn Peterson and Judi K-Turkel are Madison, WI authors and journalists who've traveled extensively to 49 states and two dozen foreign countries, written 22 books and won 7 journalism awards.