When The Best-Laid Travel Plans Go Astray

I’ve been pretty damned stationary lately for a travel blogger, but the husband has been out and about. So I give you a dispatch from Don Stacom:

Odd Couple fans might recall an episode where Felix was remorseful over betting a “sure thing” that managed to lose anyway. His buddy Oscar, long addicted to bookies and betting, sadly consoled him: “That’s why they call it gambling.”

And so it is with travel – even the safest bet is still just a bet. Sometimes you’re going to lose.

The “first flight out” strategy, for instance, is usually a winner.

You sacrifice some sleep and accept the blare of a 4:15 a.m. alarm, but you usually get where you need to go – and arrive when you expect to. Those 6 a.m. flights are reliable because the aviation system hasn’t had time to collapse yet: There’s no risk of tarmac delays, cascading ground holds, or those dreaded announcements of thunderstorms half a continent away: “We’re sorry, but weather alerts in Texas mean the equipment for this flight can’t leave Houston until 11 – so our Hartford-to-Baltimore service will be delayed for at least 2 more hours.”

 Booking the “first flight out” works brilliantly. Except when it doesn’t. Such as Northwest’s Flight 273 a week ago Saturday. Schedule: Leave Hartford at 6 a.m, arrive Detroit at 7:57.

That assumes that all the tires are good, though. Somewhere around 5:15, the gate agent announced otherwise. (Why no Northwest staff spotted and fixed this while the plane was at Bradley overnight is a terrific question).

Northwest parlayed its initial 60-minute delay into more than three hours, and the final arrive time was about 11:25 a.m. Lesson: “First flight out” doesn’t cover equipment failure.

Another usually sound strategy is “Friday afternoon Amtrak.”

Say you’re headed to Philadelphia on a late Friday afternoon. You could fly. But do you really want to book a flight into a busy East Coast hub when business travelers are jamming the planes to get home before the weekend? How about driving? Well, consider I-95 through Fairfield County, New York City and New Jersey, all on a Friday afternoon-evening in the warm weather.

So what’s the choice? The train, of course. While flights are stacking up over Philly and traffic is bumper to bumper from Stamford to Trenton, the train is just cruising along. Practically a sure thing.

Unless, of course, it’s Train 175 on this past Friday. The one where the pantagraph (that connecting pole to the overhead power wire) broke just past the New Rochelle station. Leaving the train stranded for more than three hours (one of them without a/c or reading lights). In that case, “Friday afternoon Amtrak” is another loser.

Of course, unlike casinos, the travel gods occasionally exhibit mercy. And on Friday night, they delivered it via Jimmy, an Amtrak manager at the 30th Street station in downtown Philadelphia. He heard a weary travel’s sad tale of Train 175, and the worse news that the final subway from downtown to the airport had departed 15 minutes earlier. Jimmy had been locking up, but turned back, spent 5 minutes in the office and returned with a taxi voucher and a smile.

That’s right: At 12:30 a.m. in a hot, muggy big-city railroad station, a tired Amtrak rep who was closing up shop cheerfully went out of his way to stay late, help a stranded passenger, and even wait around to ensure the cab driver showed up.

So sometimes the favorites don’t pay off. But just maybe, you hit the longshot.


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