Not exactly how
I pictured my first American meal,
but there was nothing with kimchi.

*Side note – Now that I reread this ridiculous trip home, I can’t believe I also forgot to mention the worst flight attendant ever to fly the not-so-friendly skies.  She was also part of this story.  It was five days before Christmas.  She looked just like Mrs. Claus.  A scenario right out of a holiday movie.  Until I dared to stand up and stretch my legs mid-flight for 5 seconds when she pointed, NFL coach style, arm outstretched to me from across the aisle and over four seats’ worth of people, “You!  Down!”  A couple years and a hell of a lot of flights later, I’m still appalled by her.  No flight attendant on any Asian airline we’ve ever flown would ever lose their cool like that.  They smile and nod in the most stressful of situations and never break character.  So add that to this nightmare of a travel story which follows…

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Now that we’ve been home for three weeks, I can finally bring myself to write about our less-than-desirable journey home.  I’ve sure talked about it till I was blue in the face.

I’ve debated whether to write anything at all.  I’m not well-versed on blog law or blasting a corporation online.  What if you don’t name the company itself?  What if you state that it’s strictly your own experience and your opinion of it?  Or what if no one really reads your blog – does that just fall under the Tree in the Woods section of the Constitution?

That aside, here’s the play-by-play of the trek from Mokpo, South Korea to Cleveland, Ohio, USA that ended our first year abroad.

At 5:00 a.m. Monday December 20th, we bid adieu to our one-bedroom officetel in Mokpo and hopped in a cab with an old man who apparently did not know the 50-minute route to the Gwangju bus terminal, nor could he read any sign along the way.  After much yelling, stopping to ask for directions, sitting idly in the middle of intersections, and making complete circles, we arrived at the bus terminal just in time for our 6:45 a.m. bus to leave.  Phew, that was a close call.  Surely, that would be the worst of it.

We arrived at Incheon airport near Seoul about 4 hours later.  Given the foggy conditions, it came as no surprise that our first flight was delayed.  The main concern of our flights was our dog Frankie, and he did a wonderful job breezing through the animal office while I secured his paperwork and waiting the extra hour or so in line at the ticketing counter.  As soon as it was our turn to receive tickets, the agent immediately asked where our final destination was and informed us that it would be too cold for Frankie to fly to Cleveland.  Interesting.  Airline policy states that a dog cannot travel below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but anything above that is OK as long as a veterinary certificate is provided.  Of course I had that.  But keep in mind that this was around 1:00 p.m. Korean time, so we were not to land in Ohio for another 21 hours due to our being routed through Tokyo and Dallas before Cleveland.  How this man could have known what the ground temperature would be by the time we boarded our last flight, I have no idea.  Maybe he moonlighted as a meteorologist or a psychic to supplement his income.

If he was anything though, it was rude.  He said that the best we could do was fly to Dallas and drive home from there.  He appeared to phone someone to ask to fly us closer to Ohio so the drive wouldn’t be so long, but surprise surprise, there just wasn’t anything available.  At any airport northeast of Dallas.  How many airports does the U.S. have again?  Right.

So being fresh in our travels and having driven cross country last year, we went against our better judgment of saying, “Hey, why don’t we wait and let the people in Dallas decide once we arrive?”  We complied like the good little travelers we are instead of throwing a fit right then and there.  Even so, the agent made us promise not to attempt to fly from Dallas to Cleveland, told us that our tickets would be canceled, and then told us he didn’t trust us.  Wow, thanks for that extra slap in the face, Ticketing Agent Meteorologist Psychic Man.

Since we were permitted to take Frankie on the first two flights, the three of us headed to Tokyo.  Although we did not see him once we arrived there, we proceeded to the next line for pet travelers.  Again, the lady at that counter (who scooped up an extra $260 in fees) told us that we could not fly from Dallas to Cleveland and that the last portion of our itinerary was canceled.  Still, this was a good 15-16 hours from when we should have been leaving for Cleveland.  She, too, must have been gifted at predicting weather.

So we flew to Dallas.  On a plane that smelled like pee.  Just thought I’d throw that in for good measure.  It has nothing to do with this story, but it was pretty gross.

The Me from a week prior had anticipated a ceremonious return home.  And, sure, it was a tad emotional.  Signs in (well-written) English, so many of them welcoming me back to the U.S.A., my first steps on American soil in over a year.  But it was all clouded by my apprehension of what was to come.  After two flights, fatigue had set in.  We had lost all sense of time or whether it was worth the headache to seek out the next ticketing agent to ask if they were sure, positive, 100% that we couldn’t fly to Cleveland.  We did as we were told in Seoul and Tokyo and headed with Frankie (still, an excellent traveler!) to the car rental counters.

In a twist of weirdness, we were soon leaving Dallas in a Mitsubishi Galant (the same car we drove cross country in) following a truck with a bumper sticker that simply said “Rudolph” on it.  As I continued trying to take in the sights and sounds of America, our surprise road trip became a comedy of errors.  We desperately wanted to inform our families that we were safe, but there wasn’t a pay phone, calling card, U.S. map, or English-speaking person to give us directions at the numerous places we stopped.  Our jet-lagged minds told us to stop wasting time and just keep going.  After misreading the signs as we were driving, we made it to Tulsa, Oklahoma before we decided to crash for the night.  Of course the hotel couldn’t make a long distance call either.  But we did manage to get some wifi and finally Skyped to my parents about an hour after we should have landed in Cleveland, had we been permitted on the flight.

Here are the kickers.  After knowing only bits and pieces of our trip, my dad had called the airline to inquire on our whereabouts.  They had not canceled our tickets, but instead left them open.  They told him we simply chose not to board the flight.  And the ground temperature those two Meteorologist Ticketing Agents were so concerned about?  25 degrees.  Five degrees above the minimum for Frankie to fly in.

Needless to say, my jet lag moved to the back burner and my fiery Italian side came bursting out.  I became too awake to sleep and immediately composed an angry email.  It was quickly acknowledged that they made a mistake and that a refund was in the works.  But that would go to the people who paid for the trip.  Which was our school, not us.  I did not find this out, of course, until after we returned home.  We still had 15 hours worth of driving ahead of us.

So 53 hours of travel ended in an unceremonious return home in which I saw each family member separately instead of the big group hug at the airport I had dreamed of.  The first meal our two families had planned together didn’t happen.   But we were safe and so was Frankie.  That was all I cared about.

I have since written emails, which have either been ignored or received only form-type responses.  And I made calls which ended in a non-working automated system that only hangs up on the caller if the lines are too busy.  All I asked for was to be reimbursed for the error.  Either the cost of the ticket to me, not my former employer.  Or the cost of the rental car, tank of gas, and hotel stay after I was told I had no choice but to drive home ($720 all in).  Instead I was offered a $100 voucher, which they told me was not for the error but an extension of “goodwill”.  As we all know, $100 doesn’t exactly get you very far on any airline these days.  And why, oh why, would I ever want to deal with that particular one again?

So there’s our story.  Do I say which airline it was?  Does it matter?  Eff it, it was American Airlines.  Never again!  And I highly recommend that you don’t use them either.