Tuesday Travel Trouble: Maria saves Portugal

There’s always the risk of flight delays. It really is not new news. But when you add international flights and lots of little kids to the mix, things can get really painful. Not only are there fewer options to get you across the ocean, there are also only certain times of day when those flights occur (e.g. generally overnight flights when heading across the Atlantic), making it difficult to adjust plans when flights go wrong.

When we decided to take our family to Portugal last December to visit grandparents, we were able to use frequent flyer miles to get us from Austin to Dallas (American Airlines), Dallas to Madrid (Iberia), and Madrid to Lisbon. We knew from the start it would be a long journey, but we had Christmas and grandparents on the other end, so our spirits were high.

As we headed to the airport, however, we learned that our Austin to Dallas flight was delayed. It seemed we’d still be fine on our connection, but it was disconcerting. When we got to the airport, it quickly became clear that we were at risk of missing our transatlantic flight. We knew that if we missed it, the likelihood of all of us flying together (and sitting together) was near zero, and that was really discouraging.

The following flight from Austin to Dallas could potentially work. But it was full.

We found ourselves kindly pleading to the ticket agent, Maria, for any help she could render to get us there. And she definitely heard our plea—seeing our four boys, knowing that splitting us up would be a real challenge, and recognizing the heartbreak that it would mean if we somehow couldn’t get to Portugal for Christmas as planned.

Maria made it her sole purpose—for the next HOUR—to get us to Lisbon on schedule. She checked EVERYTHING. Then she checked it AGAIN. She even asked if we were religious and had us praying right there at the counter with her while she searched. It was truly special to have someone working so hard on our family’s behalf, and not something that is common in the airline world.

Meanwhile, Emily and I were trading off with the kids, trying to keep them entertained (and fed) as we passed an hour surrounded by hoards of holiday travelers all trying to get to their destinations. The Austin airport is GREAT for many reasons, but if you’re outside security, there’s very little to see, do, or eat. It was a challenging hour, but eventually our little portable DVD player and an unexpected viewing of Sword in the Stone (which we’d planned to save for the plane) helped keep the boys occupied.

As the second flight to Dallas was just wrapping up boarding, Maria confirmed seats for five of the six of us on it. We had told her that as long as we could keep our sixth on the overnight flight, we could give it up on the way to Dallas, since our youngest was under two and could be a lap child (sometimes called “infant in arms”). Maria then escorted us through security and met us at the gate to send us off.

We were scattered throughout the plane—Emily and Lincoln were near the front. I was near the middle with the baby. And Ben and Charlie were near the back, just within view. Neighboring passengers checked on them, helped out as needed, and gave me the occasional thumbs up. We felt so grateful for everyone’s help in making it work.

In the end, we were able to catch our flight to Madrid. That flight ended up being delayed, as well, so by the time we got settled into our long-haul seats, it was almost 10pm. The boys were exhausted (and so were we), and we headed sleepily across the ocean for a wonderful visit with loved ones.

Lessons learned from this experience?

  • Have all of your confirmation numbers with travelers’ names on a printed piece of paper that you can hand to the agent. This is particularly important if you’re on multiple reservations and if you’re using partner airlines (such as we were with Iberia). Maria referred to that page over and over again as she searched ways to get us to Lisbon.
  • Know your backup flight options. Good agents (such as Maria) will already know your backups, but it never hurts to say, “I see our flight is delayed, but that flight 210 leaves an hour later and could still get us there in time.”
  • Try to be flexible. With us that meant offering to give up the baby’s seat on the short flight. In reality, we’d have given up his overnight seat if it meant the difference between getting to Portugal or not. We also told Maria that as much as we didn’t want to split up, we could do it if absolutely necessary—and we told her who would go with whom. Fortunately it didn’t come to that!
  • Be nice, and try to roll with the punches. I’ve mentioned it before, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning every time. Maria felt our kindness and appreciation, and she was willing to spend the extra time with us to make things happen. Even through a few tears at the ticket counter (ours, not hers), Maria plowed through until she got us seats to Dallas. We sent a letter to American praising her efforts, dedication, and attention to customer needs.
  • Have enough entertainment for the kids before getting on the airplane. We had to unexpectedly break out the portable DVD player before we even made it through security. Sometimes, though, entertaining the kids during the check-in process can take some creativity—like races outside on the sidewalk, counting the number of white (or red or blue) cars that pass, or playing I Spy with things visible in the terminal. The active games can also help get some of those extra wiggles out before buckling in for a flight.
  • Act fast if a change of plans is needed. As soon as it looked like our delayed flight to Dallas was going to cause us to miss our connection there, we considered driving to Dallas and pick up our next flight there. It didn’t come to that, but it was definitely an option. Just make sure if you consider skipping the first leg of your itinerary, that you have the airline’s approval (and that they adjust your reservation)—otherwise your reservation will be canceled when you miss the first leg and you’ll be up a creek when you arrive at the second airport for the next leg of your journey.
  • Flights earlier in the day offer a better bet when it comes to making it to your destination as scheduled. Earlier flights are less likely to be delayed. And if an earlier flight is canceled, you’ll have more alternative options later in the day to still get you where you need to go. Right along with this tip is one about length of layovers—we had about 1.5 hours planned in Dallas. Seemed good for getting some more wiggles out, grabbing a quick bite to eat, changing the kids into their pajamas, and then boarding with plenty of time before departure. But ever since this experience, we’ve decided that planning at least 2 hours for international connections is probably best.
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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] can truly be an adventure.  Last year we took the family to Portugal, and you may recall the harrowing experience of getting there after some storms caused flight delays.  While it’s true that Christmastime is […]

  2. […] to Portugal to visit Emily’s parents for a week.  It was a wonderful trip, in spite of the challenge getting there and the added stop on the way home.  As we geared up for our trip, our train-loving son, Peter, […]

  3. […] we did have an unplanned adventure getting to Lisbon, we were able to get from Austin to Lisbon with less than a day’s travel.  On the way home, we […]

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