Life on the Road

By Richard Quest

It is a horrible rule of travel that when plans go wrong, they will do so spectacularly. So this article will try and offer some advice so you don’t get caught along with everyone else.

Recently I was flying long-haul across the Pacific to Asia when, even before we’d left the gate, the aircraft “went tech.” In other words, it broke down – and the flight was cancelled. Because I was not on the west coast, where there were plenty of options for transfers or different airlines, I was stranded for 24 hours until they could reroute me. I lost crucial interviews; my schedule was in tatters. My travels unraveled like a woolly sweater caught on a nail.

It set me thinking about the sort of things we really need to remember when traveling. Firstly, it can go wrong. Badly wrong. In the old days we would always arrange to leave a couple of days in advance in order to allow for mishaps, jetlag and lost luggage. Not today. Now we cut things so tight that we are barely off the plane, on the phone and into our first meetings. In this environment it is inevitable that your stress levels will go through the roof at the first announcement of “Ladies and gentlemen, we seem to have a problem.”

So instead, when you hear those words, immediately start weighing your options – specifically how can you get out of that airport as quickly as possible. Don’t wait for the flight to be cancelled or help from the airline. You are on your own! This might involve calling your corporate travel agent to find out other flights, or perhaps using your own knowledge of carriers and potential re-routing options. I was once stranded at Rekyavik after the plane’s cockpit windshield cracked. It was only by quickly making my own calls to book the last seat on Icelandair to New York that I was able to beat the rest of the crowd.

If bad weather is the problem, do your best to GET OUT OF DODGE FAST! So long as you are still going in the right direction, any progress is good progress.

And although there is a spirit of camaraderie, your fellow travelers are not your friends. They are your competitors for that last seat on the flight going where you want to go. By all means share a laugh and a joke, but if you see someone surreptitiously talking on the phone, you can bet they are securing their seat on the lifeboat.

(Recently it was fascinating to watch: an entire first-class lounge of experienced travelers battling to get across the Pacific – one woman, clearly head-and-shoulders more experienced than the rest of us, got a brilliant connection to San Francisco and the last seat to Hong Kong. She didn’t wait for the airline or anyone else to come to her aid.)

This means you have to be prepared to spend more of your own money, and possibly not get it back from the defaulting carrier. So be it. If you are going to argue about who pays for the new ticket (are you going to get a FIM, flight interrupt manifest?), you are going to be the last one sorted out.

Before you start your journey, warn your colleagues or clients on the other side that “this is going to be a close call which could go wrong.” So much of the misery we heap on ourselves is because we are destroying expectations that we have built up. Recently I flew from Nice to Zurich to New York to interview the architect Richard Meier.  We had two hours from landing at Kennedy to reach the interview in midtown Manhattan. We had warned his office that this would be tight.  (Thankfully Swiss ran like, well, a Swiss clock and we made it all ok.)

So always tell your client “it’s a long shot” or “if the flight’s delayed, I’m in trouble.” And possibly ask, “What’s the backup plan if my flight is delayed or cancelled?” They may say there isn’t one – but at least they know the risks everyone is running.

Finally, recognize when the game is up and you have been beaten. If there is widespread weather disruption across many airlines, and the carrier still has your baggage, and long queues at all the help desks, then you are probably not going to get very far that day. Exceptions are high-ranking frequent flier members or very experienced fliers that know the airline guide backwards.

But when beaten, make the most of it. Tell everyone on the other side the bad news and then do something for yourself. Relish the fact you have a night to yourself, in a city you hadn’t expected to be in, and go out for a good dinner. Make some new friends, with perhaps those other passengers who became stranded. Then be prepared to beat them the next morning in the great game of Life on the Road.

Richard Quest is a CNN anchor and correspondent based in London.

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