12 October 2010

The trip that almost wasn't...

DH and I have a tradition of taking our grandchildren on a special trip when they turn 13, and our most recent trip to Anguilla was such an occasion – only for various reasons that I won’t go into here, this particular trip was delayed until DG was 15.  We wouldn’t normally plan a trip like this during October because of the weather risks but because my husband teaches, we were restricted to his schedule, so Fall Break it was.  There were a lot of things that could and did go wrong with both the planning and the execution of this trip, but in retrospect, I have few true regrets. 

For starters, we had planned to book our flights into St. Maarten and then ferry over to Anguilla, because I saw back in August a fantastic airfare for just under US $350 RT BDL-SXM.  However, at that time DG’s parents were still deciding whether or not to let us travel out of the country with her (her older sisters went to New Orleans and Vieques, Puerto Rico), and by the time we had an affirmative answer, the rates skyrocketed.  Airfares to either AXA or SXM now were a whopping $850 per person, and we despaired of getting to Anguilla at all.  I scoured all kinds of discount travel sites, but there just wasn’t a lot available.

 I finally took a look at the American Airlines Vacations website, and to my surprise, they were offering packages to Ku on Anguilla for a few dollars less per person than booking airfare alone would have been.  Now understand that first of all, I’ve never wanted to stay on Shoal Bay East before, because what constitutes as crowded for me is not what most people’s idea of crowded is. Secondly, it has also been a LONG time since we’ve stayed in a hotel for vacation; quite a few years and islands ago, as a matter of fact.  But the price was right and it met our few, albeit strict, requirements: it had kitchen facilities, a/c in the bedrooms, and most importantly, it was located in Anguilla!  Yes, I read the increasingly spotty reviews on Trip Advisor, but they didn’t phase me (much).  After all, this was our fourth trip to Anguilla in two years –- DH and I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.  So with eyes wide open, I booked the trip to Ku with the full knowledge that it wouldn’t have been my first choice had circumstances been otherwise but determined nonetheless to have a fine vacation.  I also booked travel insurance, just to be on the safe side, and joked that I was looking forward to our trip to “Hurricane Central.” Turns out, that wasn’t far off the mark. 

We departed BDL early on Thursday morning, 7 October, arriving in SJU about 30 minutes late because of a minor mechanical problem.  I alone among my travel companions knew that the SJU-AXA flight had been canceled a few days that week (including the day before) because of bad weather, so when we checked the monitors at 12:30 pm to see that the 1:30 pm flight to Anguilla was listed as On Time, my relief was immense.  It was also short-lived.  As our departure crept near, we still had no airplane and no gate agent.  Eventually the monitor status changed to Canceled, but there was still no gate agent around.  I then checked across the hall to see if we could get on the flight going to SXM, but that gate agent told me she couldn’t help me, that I had to go back to the Anguilla gate and wait there for another GA. 

That was the first of several run-arounds we got from American, and with each one I grew a little more disgusted and a little more desperate.  Their first announcement about the cancellation was that it was a mechanical issue.  I knew that was bulls#it.  Then they said the Anguilla airport was closed.  When another passenger pointed out that Anguilla Air Express and LIAT were still flying to Anguilla, the answer changed to no, the airport isn’t closed, but we’re not flying due to weather.  Meanwhile, the airplane to Sint Maarten takes off and not one of us was able to get on it.  Grrrrr.

So now we’re lined up trying to get rebooked, only the earliest they tell us we can get to Anguilla is Saturday, and even that is working as a standby passenger.  That’s when a young woman named Alexis, who is petite, argumentative, and attractive in equal measure (I’m guessing trial attorney) starts demanding that American Eagle just reroute our flight to St. Maarten—it was a pretty full flight, actually, because the entire Anguillian futbol team was traveling back home.  Then we were back to the “mechanical failure” excuse—they didn’t have a plane for us that was operational.  Then Alexis demands to speak to the GA’s supervisor, to whom she makes the same demand.  Supervisor actually seems to consider it, then says she’ll go off to see if she can make it happen.  God bless Alexis. 

An hour later American announces to us all that we should reclaim any checked baggage and go directly to ticketing because yes, they have successfully rerouted our flight to SXM.  Slightly cheered, we trudge away and go to ticketing, only to be told that everyone waiting for the SXM flight should just take a seat and hold tight.  TWO HOURS LATER we’re still sitting there.  I decide to go up to the counter to see how things are progressing when the ticketing agent tells me that the new flight had been canceled about an HOUR AGO because the SXM had closed due to water on the runway.  Nope, they just hadn’t bothered making an announcement to the 40+ of us who were waiting for an answer. 

By this time we’re wondering if we should just cancel altogether.  Our trip was only for four nights anway, and now best-case scenario puts us on Anguilla for only three nights, with the most likely scenario being only two nights.  The American TA would not tell us whether the SXM flight would be rescheduled for the following morning, or for what time it might be.  When pushed, she said that we could keep calling AA every hour or so to see if the flight had been scheduled, but even if it was, they couldn’t confirm seats on it until we came back the next morning to check in.  Yeah, great, thanks. 

DH was strongly leaning towards just catching a flight back to Hartford that night.  I called AAVacations to see if they could just change our destination to another island.  Screw it, I thought.  If we can get four nights elsewhere, that wouldn’t be so bad.  That’s what airlines do when they can’t get you to your destination due to a tropical depression. Thank goodness for trip insurance, right?  Well, no, actually.  The customer service agent blithely told me that the trip insurance I purchased was only valid up until our departure.  WTF?  Despite the cancellation due to weather, and despite the airline’s not being able to rebook us on another flight to Anguilla for another two days, leaving us with one actual night spent in Anguilla before returning home, the CS kept claiming that he couldn’t do anything for me in terms of rebooking for another set of dates or to change islands.  Had we simply not boarded the plane in Hartford that morning, however, he would have happily rebooked us to another destination, for no extra charge other than paying the different in package prices.

In the meantime, an Anguillian named Junior Fleming (the Anguilla Great House Junior, not the glass bottom boat Junior,) comes up to us to introduce himself.  We get acquainted, then he gives me his cell phone number to call in case we need help getting to Anguilla from SXM, should we happen to actually get to SXM.  His kindness was a balm to our weary souls, and after he leaves, I make the executive decision to overnight in San Juan and try to recapture some of our lost vacation mojo by choosing El Convento over the dingy airport hotel.  Sure, we’d have to pay for it out of pocket; but when I called up and explained the situation to El Convento and mentioned that we were returning guests, the reservations agent quoted us a very attractive rate.

DH and DG at the rooftop wine reception at El Convento

San Juan cathedral at night-seen from our rooftop reception

DG and me at the rooftop wine reception at El Convento

It was a good choice. We arrived there just in time to toss our bags into the room and head up to the rooftop wine and cheese reception.  It was heavenly.  The rain had momentarily stopped, the plaza below was alive with the sound of music, and DG had stars in her eyes over the hotel.  I love El Convento, I love the magic of the old town in San Juan, and I was just beginning to feel that it would be okay if we didn’t actually make it to Anguilla.  We could carve out a happy enough niche for ourselves in Puerto Rico instead. 

Eight different kinds of wine--that's what I'm talkin' about!

Jellyfish neon light at AguaViva

We decided over dinner at Aqua Viva (our first disappointing visit – you can read the full review at Trip Advisor, once it’s posted) that we’d go back to the room and I would keep calling AA until we had answers.  Around midnight, I finally got a CS rep who told me that an unusually-scheduled flight of SJU-SXM was showing up for 9:00 am, but that he couldn’t actually book us on it.  Thus, for the second morning in a row, we’re up 5:30 am in anticipation of another long travel day.  If the only way for us to get booked on the flight was to show up early, then that’s what we’re prepared to do. 

A street off of Calle Fortaleza in Old San Juan

The three of us, walking back to the hotel after dinner.

I still cannot believe how badly the lines of communication at American broke down for us on this trip.  I’m not sure if the GAs and TAs were lying to us to try to appease us or were just passing along misinformation, but they really dropped the ball by not being up front about what was happening.  Mechanical failure, weather cancellation, airport closures, no crew.  Perhaps a combination of all three.  The point is that they didn’t give us the courtesy of updating us as things changed.  The fact that one TA told me point blank that the SXM flight had been canceled an hour ago but that he hadn’t told us yet really angered me.  When we checked in on Friday and asked if the SXM airport had opened back up, the TA said it was never closed.  That it was AA who canceled the SXM flight on Thursday evening because they didn’t have a crew to fly the plane, not because there was water on the runway.

This is quite verbose already and we’ve not even arrived in Anguilla yet!  More to come.  Including pictures.  I just didn't have any great shots from the airport in San Juan.  Go figure.

1 comment:

  1. Youre precisely correct on this blog post...


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