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'Anatomy of a Nightmare': The Readers Respond

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Our story last week on the nightmarish trip from Washington to Italy experienced by D.C. resident Cara Lanza -- delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage and all -- provoked quite a few responses from readers, many of whom shared advice as well as a few nightmares of their own. A sampling:

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Cindy Loose's story on Cara Lanza was terrific. Coming and Going is not only a great travel column but is one of the best pieces of journalism in The Post.

You did leave out a strategy that you have advocated before and that I always try to follow: Avoid connecting flights if at all possible. Lanza could have booked a direct nonstop flight from Dulles to Rome on United Airlines and avoided all of her problems.

We will even drive to an airport that has a nonstop flight to avoid a connecting flight. We did that this past September by driving to Philadelphia to get a nonstop flight to Madrid rather than take a flight that would have connected either through Philadelphia or Newark. In Lanza's case, she would have been so much better off driving the four hours to Newark if Continental was the only airline she could use for her trip to Rome.

Short connecting flights through busy airports significantly raise the risk of airport problems.

Alan Legum

Annapolis

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I use Continental about once a year to travel to small airports in the United Kingdom from Reagan National. It has become general knowledge that many flights are late arriving or leaving, especially later in the day. We also know that going through security takes a long time.

This year, although my plane was leaving for Edinburgh around 10 p.m., I took a flight at approximately 3 p.m. from National so that I arrived in Newark around 5. It was a long traveling day, but I didn't have the anxiety of knowing I would barely have time to catch the plane.

Kay Eley

Washington

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Why didn't you suggest Amtrak as a way for metro D.C. folks to get to Newark International Airport?

How?

1. D.C.'s Metro connects easily with Amtrak at Union Station or New Carrollton.

2. Multiple D.C. Amtrak departures go to the Newark airport rail stop. It's about a 2 1/2 -hour trip.

3. From there it's a direct connection to the airport via the free AirTrain service.

4. In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's on-time arrival record is very good (about 90 percent).

Joe Kyle

Ashland, Va.

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I experienced deja vu reading your story, although my wife and I had a happier ending than Lanza.

On Friday, March 16, 2006, we prepared to embark from Reagan National to Newark and then on to Zurich via Amsterdam. Our ultimate destination was St. Moritz for a week-long ski trip in the Swiss Alps. We booked our travel using Northwest miles through Continental.

When we arrived at National, we were informed that our flight was canceled due to snow (minimal in D.C., heavier in New York). I asked if our flight from Newark was still going and was told yes. We immediately rented a car and drove through the storm to Newark, arriving two hours before flight time.

At Newark, all domestic flights were canceled, but international flights were still going out until, unfortunately, we were informed all flights were canceled at all three New York airports.

At first, the Continental agents told us we wouldn't be able to leave for Europe for three or four days. I remained firm but polite that I needed to get out on Saturday evening and would travel wherever necessary to do that. The three agents were tenacious in their efforts to find a way to get us there. First they found us a Virgin Atlantic flight to Heathrow leaving Saturday evening. Ultimately, they found British Airways seats going from Heathrow to Zurich on Sunday, but they stayed on the phone with BA for 45 minutes until they could get a live agent to verify that the seats were available and confirmed for us.

Given that the airport was jammed with stranded travelers and the St. Patrick's Day parade was the next morning in Manhattan, we couldn't find a hotel room within 50 miles, so we staked out our small piece of real estate in a corner of the seedy terminal that houses Continental. (If we are ever stuck in Newark again, we will move over to the international terminal, which is cleaner and cozier.)

We left our luggage checked and the next morning shuttled to Manhattan, where we attended the parade, shopped and had a wonderful lunch.

Saturday night we left for Heathrow on Virgin and arrived the next morning, only to find we'd missed our connection. Fearing the worst, we presented ourselves at the Virgin counter and were sent over to the BA counter where, with a minimum of hassle, they issued us two boarding passes for the next flight to Zurich.

We arrived in Zurich Sunday evening to find our luggage and ski bag waiting for us outside baggage claim. With a great deal of hustle we made our three train connections, including the last train to St. Moritz on Sunday night. I was on the slopes the next morning with my pals. Despite the weather, the crowded flights, the late flights, etc., I missed only one day of skiing.

I attribute part of our relative success to knowing how the airlines work, but also to treating the agents with respect and civility. I was firm but always polite and knowledgeable, never raising my voice or whining.

George Burke

Falls Church

* * *

I agree with your advice. Last year, we booked a late-May flight to Greece on Orbitz: United from Dulles to JFK, and Delta from JFK to Athens. As in the article, we were seduced by the short layover time in JFK, and figured that a May departure would avoid both snowstorms and thunderstorms. As it turned out, the United flight was delayed so that we could not have made our Delta flight.

The woman at the United counter was pleasant but told us that we needed to arrange another cross-Atlantic flight with Delta and that our luggage with United would be automatically routed on the flight that we ultimately used. The man at the Delta counter was also pleasant but, more important, was also extraordinarily helpful. He checked flight combinations for close to an hour, phoning and running to other airline counters to try to get us onto other airlines, and managed to get us on an Air France flight from Dulles to Paris leaving that afternoon.

The bad news was that there was a 10-hour layover in Paris before our connection to Athens; the good news was that he upgraded us to business class for the over-the-pond hop. He also told us, as we suspected, that the United woman was wrong: We had to get our bags from the United baggage office and recheck them with Air France.

As it turned out, there are certainly worse fates than an unexpected 10 hours in Paris, where we spent the day hanging out in cafes and roaming parts of the city where we had not been before. We lost one night's hotel charges in Nauplion and ended up instead spending our first night at the Athens Airport Sofitel.

Lessons learned:

¿ Don't be sucked into flights with short layover times.

¿ Avoid connections using different airlines; even if the flights are on the same itinerary, it is still a logistical nightmare to untangle delays, luggage, etc.

¿ And most important, fly your transatlantic segment from your airport of first departure, and make your connections in Europe. At least then, if something goes wrong with a connection -- and it will -- you get to cool your heels somewhere fun and exciting rather than seething back in Virginia.

John Geracimos

Alexandria

* * *

I would like to offer an additional nightmare-avoidance strategy. If at all possible, make your initial flight the longest of your itinerary. In trips to Europe, this means making sure you fly across the Atlantic on your first flight, even if you have to spend some extra dollars on the ticket. If leaving Washington, book a nonstop flight from Dulles or BWI to a hub on the European continent. In a worst-case, all-flights-are-grounded scenario, you can get a train or rent a car and reach your destination in a timely fashion.

Similarly, in returning to the United States, make your first flight the one that gets you back to North America, because you know you can get home to Washington using ground transportation. This strategy offers the added advantage that if your transatlantic flight is canceled, at least you're at home (or, if already in Europe, in your temporary home base), and not stuck in a way station, as Lanza was.

Keith A. Eddins

Arlington

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I do not understand this whole overbooking scam. If I buy a train ticket for Boston, I pay for the ticket and the agent has my money. Whether or not I get on the train is immaterial to the train company. They have been paid for my seat, and if I occupy it or not, that does not decrease their income. Why don't planes operate on the same principle? Sell the tickets, receive the cash and then if the plane is only half full, they won't be losing anything -- they would actually be gaining a little because they would have a lighter plane. Then there would be no overbooking and trying to guess what percentage of people may not show up.

Considering Lanza's situation, and that another airline had written her ticket, British Airways should have put her in whatever seat it had available. I wonder, if she had not coughed up the extra money for first-class fare, would they have just left that seat empty, rather than accept her economy fare for it? Pretty poor business strategy on their part.

At every turn in this story, all the various airlines involved had the opportunity to solve the travel problems and gain the undying loyalty of a hardworking woman who just wanted to get to Italy with her friends. Yet at every turn the airlines rebuffed her, did as little as possible to help, would not advocate for her and squabbled among themselves. Now what they have is a full page and a half of the worst kind of publicity.

Debra Stevenson

Fairfax

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I wanted to comment about Newark airport. I have been analyzing on-time arrival statistics, and in 2006 it was the worst airport in the country for on-time arrivals: Only 62 percent of flights arrived on time, and almost one-quarter were delayed by more than a half-hour.

I have flown out of Newark twice to Europe over the past 18 months, because flights are substantially cheaper than from D.C. We have driven or taken the train. From Union Station, you can go directly to the airport -- the station is as convenient as Metro at National. Obviously, Amtrak won't help you if you arrive late, but there are also a fair number of departures on Amtrak from D.C., so you can choose your comfort zone.

Liisa Ecola

Washington

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There are some obvious hints that would have improved Cara Lanza's chances of a successful vacation. Among them:

¿ Make your connection as close to your final destination as possible. In this case, she would have done better to connect in London or Frankfurt. If you miss that connection, you have many more opportunities to reach your final destination. Of course, the opposite is true for the return. But how many people write CoGo to complain they returned late and missed two days of work and Beltway traffic?

¿ Learn more about local transportation options in nearby cities. On our last flight to Italy, we drove to Philadelphia and took a nonstop to Rome. Why risk a connection at all for an airport that is two hours away? Newark airport is only four hours.

¿ Lanza gave up her nonstop from Newark to Rome because she would miss her ride to Naples. Instead, she wasted a day arranging a three-leg, three-airline journey from Newark to London to Munich to Naples. She should have taken the trip to Rome and then hopped a train to Naples, or looked for other transport from Rome to Naples by visiting the information desk at the airport.

Jeff Posner

North Bethesda

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Over the years I have learned to assume that on any airline trip requiring a connection, the high probability will be that that the connection will not happen. It is my practice to always have a very large time gap between connecting flights.

There are many flights to Europe from Dulles or BWI. And their traffic congestion is a lot lighter. I can't think of any reason to go to nightmare airports like Newark or JFK -- and with a connection from Washington to make things worse.

To try to keep my luggage, I would never have more than one connection (in Europe), and none in the United States.

From Rome to the Amalfi area there is probably very good and frequent bus or train service.

Gerard Field

Annapolis

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I was disappointed that nowhere in your article was there any mention of travel insurance.

As a seller of travel, I always recommend travel insurance, but I highly recommend it whenever someone is traveling during the winter, hurricane season or especially to Europe. I don't pretend to be an expert on travel insurance and obviously there are differences between the various options available, but travel delay and luggage delay are two items covered in most policies. At least some of Lanza's expenses would have been reimbursed by the insurance company.

Pete Peterson

Cruise Planners Inc.

Ashburn

Editor's note:

A good travel agent or a travel insurance company with 24-hour service could have helped Lanza try to find her luggage and another flight. Trip interruption insurance might have paid for the hotel nights she missed, depending on the terms (see related story in today's Coming and Going column, Page P1), and a specified amount of money to replace items in her delayed bags. Insurance can also be bought that could have covered her incidental expenses caused by the delay, such as an airport hotel and food. Trip cancellation insurance could have given her the option of going home and seeking reimbursement for her aborted trip expenses . But insurance would not have paid for her to get on another carrier or to upgrade her seat. In any case, be sure to read any policy carefully before purchase.

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