Travel Nightmares Part 3 – Bus Station 1

Panama City Sunset
Panama City Sunset
As the sun was setting in Panama City, I was sitting on a big coach bus getting ready for a 10 hour overnight journey to Almirante, where I would catch a ferry the next morning to the islands of Bocas del Toro. Bus travel isn’t my favourite and bus travel in Panama is now on my ‘never again list’.
Bus stations in general aren’t the friendliest places anywhere in the world. They are often unorganized, chaotic and dirty. I had started my bus journey by arriving an hour early to make sure that everything would good smoothly, or so I thought. I asked the lady at the turnstiles (in Spanish) if I needed anything other than my receipt. She said no, so I thought I was all set.
In the waiting area, there were no easily accessible seats for someone like me with two carry ons and a suitcase. I strolled over to the wall where others were standing, leaning and kneeling. I set all of my luggage beside me and sat down on the dirty floor. I didn’t really want to stand for the next hour until boarding. I was wearing black work out pants and a t-shirt, what harm would a little bit of dirt on my ass do?
Not five minutes later, the same lady from the turnstile moved around the room at the pace of a sloth, and when she came to me, she told me in Spanish that I was not allowed to sit on the floor, I’d have to get up. I’m pretty sure I responded with ‘En serio?’ (which, in hindsight probably didn’t help me at the next point of contact). I got off my butt and squatted instead of sitting. Because, seriously, sitting on your haunches against a wall isn’t against the rules, but your bum on the ground is?
Eventually a seat opened up and I moved myself and my luggage to a chair that was about as clean as the floor I had been sitting on.
About half an hour later, the call for my bus was made and it was like a mad dash of sloths to the turnstiles. This cracks me up because it is so true. There’s no such thing as hurrying or rushing here. However, people will slowly move toward the gate all at the same time making sure to take up double the room necessary so that no one else can pass by. One person might be totally in your space, breathing down your neck from behind, but then the family in front of you has luggage and boxes strewn about in no particular order, blocking anyone from walking through the main path. It’s such an interesting (and frustrating) experience.
Finally, I arrived at the turnstile and I see people using a card to gain access to pass through the gate. I showed the same lady my paper and she waved me away. She didn’t use any words, just signalled that I could not pass. I stood my ground and asked her what I needed. She rambled on something about a card and waved other people to come past me. I didn’t move. I asked the lady (probably not in my nicest tone – in Spanish) where I could get this card. She basically said ‘Over there.’ and with a nod of her head in the direction of the ENTIRE busy hallway / bus station behind me. I mumbled ‘thanks’ (for nothing) and turned to make my way backward through the herd of sloths.
Another local lady was watching the situation unfold and she looked at me like I was a lost puppy.  ‘Tell the girl where she can get the card,’ she said, annoyed at the lady. The lady just looked at her and then pointed with her finger instead of her chin to where I should go ‘over there’. The local lady just shook her head with a look of embarrassment on her face.
I had been an hour early, asked if I had everything I needed and still was turned away at the gate 15 minutes before the bus was to leave. So much for trying to be proactive and have things run smoothly.
I rushed backwards through the crowds to go find this elusive counter and a card that I didn’t know I needed in order to catch my bus on time. I still don’t know what the card was for, but I paid a couple of dollars for it and in the end, it allowed me access through the turnstile and away from the nasty lady.
I dropped off my luggage for under the bus and got a ticket to show it had been received. I jostled for my place in line to get on the bus. It truly amazes me that people will actually push you out of their way to get on a bus that everyone is getting on anyway. And we have assigned seats, so it’s not even about getting a good seat. Locals pushed in front and all around me and physically separated a dad and child of about three years old as they were busy pushing their way on the bus and not worrying about the little one at knee height. Lucky he didn’t get kicked or fall over.
I settled in to my window seat. Ate my bag of bbq chips for dinner and crossed my fingers that no one would be sitting beside me so that I could stretch out a bit on the ride.
As the bus powered up, I was still sitting alone. Could I be so lucky?
No.

A lady and her toddler climbed on the bus last minute and made their way toward my empty seat. The lady smooshed the child in between us on the seats and settled in for what was sure to be a long ride.

And a long ride it was …

Travel Nightmares Part 2 – Hate

My luggage

In continuation of my Travel Nightmares Part 1 – Love, not everything went so well on my journey from Canada to Panama in December 2016.

While being pampered in Air Canada Premium Rouge class with extra snacks and upgraded food, I advised staff that I was supposed to connect to a flight to Panama but that it had likely already departed. They told me there were a few others on the flight with the same connection and that there was no current update, but we could talk to Air Canada staff after we cleared immigration, about any arrangements that needed to be made.

This is where my luck ran out and everything went downhill fast (or maybe slow would be a better description).

I was the third person off the plane and second person in line to go through immigration when we arrived in Kingston, Jamaica. The officer checked over my passport, asked me a few questions and asked for my boarding passes. When she discovered that my connecting flight had already departed, that’s where the real ‘fun’ began. She asked me where I would be staying. I explained to her that I needed to find an Air Canada rep in order to find that information out. I also told her that I was told there would be someone to speak to after I picked up my luggage (which was after immigration). She would have nothing to do with it. She told me she couldn’t let me pass until I could tell her where I was staying. I tried to explain my case again but no luck. I told her there were others in the same situation and that I thought they had already passed through, but she stood her ground. She kept my passport even though I pleaded to have it back and sent me to the back of the hall to an information desk where ‘apparently’ I could talk to ‘someone’.

The information desk was unattended, but I hollered ‘hello’ and heard an ‘I’ll be there.’ So, I waited. A nice lady come to the front, but unfortunately I wasn’t my normal chipper self, having just had my passport held and denied entry into the country that I wasn’t even supposed to be staying in. She called an Air Canada rep over the intercom no less than five times. Eventually a lady sauntered over (I’m still not sure if she worked for Air Canada or not). I explained the situation, including that I didn’t have any information on my connecting flight as we were just arriving and Air Canada had not given us any information. Further to that, I couldn’t get past immigration to find out if my flight had already departed or find a rep to discuss my situation. The lady was quiet. Not mean or unhelpful, just not very communicative. She made a couple of calls and told me that Air Canada had arranged for all of us to stay at Pegasus hotel for the night, but that we would have to call Aeroplan (because each of us were flying on points redemptions) to rebook our flights. Apparently we could do that after customs and immigration. She told me to bring my passport and come with her, to which I had to re-explain that the immigration officer held my passport and wouldn’t give it back.

Off the two of us went to the desk to get my passport back and sort this out. Except, the immigration officer didn’t just need where I would be staying, she also wanted to know which flight I would be departing on. Now, I understand that to be let into a country they want to know when you are leaving. This is a fairly standard rule. But, my frustrations were ever compounding because Air Canada had not rebooked my flights or provided any information. At that particular moment in time I was stuck in a country being denied entry, but also not able to make any further arrangements. And, I’m not in possession of my own passport. Of course they wanted me to call Air Canada Reservations right then to get flights sorted. Um no. I was not paying roaming charges from Jamaica to call Air Canada and wait on hold to sort this out. There had to be another solution. After all it wasn’t my fault that the weather was bad, the connections were missed and Air Canada left us to fend for ourselves.

The lady who was trying to help me disappeared without a word (would she return? I didn’t know). I connected with two of the other passengers who were just about to try their luck going through immigration. And then the lady came back, asking us all to come to one specific immigration desk. Except, the immigration officer still wouldn’t give me my passport. I waited for her to finish with the next client and saunter her way over to the other desk. One of the other girls who had been on my flight had actually been sent to a holding room without any information or her passport and she was just rejoining us.

In the end, we all made it through immigration somehow and were told to go to counter 41 after we had our luggage. There we would find a phone and could call the Air Canada rep to come out and talk to us about our hotel, transfer and hopefully our new flights.

You may remember in Part 1 I talked about how much luggage there was for all of the Jamaicans heading home from Canada after Christmas. Passengers had too much carry on luggage that was then put into checked luggage, plus, I’m sure more than half the plane had two bags (or boxes) per person. It was a steady flow of luggage coming along the belt, but it went on for an hour or more before they loaded the last piece. The other passengers that had missed their connection had gathered their luggage about 45 minutes into the process and left to see what they could find out about their flights and transfers. I told them I’d catch up as I suspected my luggage didn’t make the connection in Toronto and I would have to file a lost baggage claim.

My luggage
Last seen when I took this photo in Halifax Dec 29th at 3:45am

I waited for the belt to stop and the remaining bags were removed from the belt. Mine was nowhere to be seen, so off to the baggage counter I went. Go figure, it was unstaffed. I asked another staff member if there was an Air Canada rep around and she said ‘Ya, someone was here,’ and then turned her back to continue her conversation with a colleague. A minute later I approached her again and asked, as politely as I could after all of this, ‘Could you please help me find the Air Canada baggage rep?’ She sighed, started asking a few people and slogged off looking to see if she could track someone down.

When I turned around, there were now four or five others lined up at the Air Canada desk. A few minutes later, I jostled my way back to the counter when the rep finally arrived. I gathered the required paperwork to fill out and quickly returned it to the desk, anxious to get out of there and on to the next obstacle.

Although I was the first person to hand over my paperwork, somehow I was the second last person in the line to have my paperwork completed. Seems as though mine was more difficult, or maybe I had someone new working on my file. After a good 20 – 30 minutes at the counter, I was sent to stand in a line up to go through customs with a piece of paper saying my luggage had been lost. Thankfully they had created a separate line up for us because 100+ Jamaicans were still waiting in the customs line up to have their luggage approved for entry. I’ve seriously never seen so much luggage!

I had no issues at the customs desk, returned the piece of paper to the baggage claim area and made my way out the doors, officially into the heat of Jamaica.  Now the hunt was on for counter 41 where I hoped my fellow displaced passengers would be waiting for me, although I was a little skeptical as I had been well over an hour longer than them in the baggage area. After checking with the info desk, I was directed a few hundred meters away to the departures area where I would find counter 41 and my ‘pals’ waiting for me. Apparently they had come looking for me a couple of times but weren’t allowed back into the baggage area, so they just had to wait for me to appear. They had used the phone and spoken to an Air Canada rep who had told them that we would be staying at a different hotel, the Knutsford Court Hotel and we would all be transferred there as soon as I arrived. They had tried to make arrangements for their flights, but there wasn’t a phone available for use for that purpose, so it would have to wait until we got to the hotel.

Of course, the Air Canada rep had gotten tired of waiting for me (for over an hour) and had gone on break or to do something else and told the others to call through on the phone when I arrived. Because I already told you that the story keeps getting worse, it’ll be no surprise that dialling through on the phone line got nothing but a busy signal for the next 15 – 20 minutes while we continued to wait and had no contact with the rep and no way to call our transfer driver to take us to the hotel.

One of the other passengers went to talk to staff from another airline and ask for help. I asked one of the airport staff to help us and eventually the Air Canada rep appeared again. She called our transfer driver, introduced us to him and as we were about to load our luggage into the vehicle, she realized he wasn’t the right driver, so she re-introduced us to someone else. Gah! Seriously?

The five of us piled into two different vehicles and off we went in what we hoped were the correct vehicles, going to the correct hotel. We had touched down at around 4pm local time and it was now after 7:30pm as we were arriving at the hotel.

Check in at the hotel went smoothly, thank goodness as just about all of us were ready to burst from frustration. The hotel even offered to let us use the business centre phones to call Air Canada to sort out our flights for the next day. Unfortunately Air Canada and Aeroplan 1-800 numbers don’t work from International phone lines and they don’t provide a regular number. One couple had a travel roaming package for their cell phone, but that also wouldn’t help because the 1-800 number still didn’t work from Jamaica. Frustrations mounted even higher. We had really been left in the lurch.

I was slightly less panicked than the rest of the people as I knew I would be able to use Skype to call the 1-800 number. (One of the many useful pieces of information I’ve learned while being a digital nomad.) I told the others, but of course not all of them had Skype, or laptops. I offered for everyone to come to my room and we could try to do all of the changes at once, if the internet connection would hold.

One of the girls dropped by just as I was dialling Aeroplan as we had been advised they were the ones that would have to take care of it for us. We waited on hold for 1 hour, 16 minutes and 12 seconds (Skype shows me these stats). At about 45 minutes, one of the other girls came to visit and said that she had messaged her parents in Toronto. They weren’t able to get through to Aeroplan because of the long wait time, but they had gotten through to Air Canada and her flight was all taken care of for the next day’s departure. She was in the clear. As we continued to wait on hold with Aeroplan, I had the idea to call the travel agent line from Air Canada. Originally I hadn’t thought of it because we were told to call Aeroplan specifically. (Good thing I just did 10+ hours of Air Canada certification training to help my agency keep access to this special service line because it sure came in handy!)

Air Canada Certificate

About 30 minutes later, the staff at our travel agent line had my flight and one of the other girl’s flights all taken care of. There were a couple of glitches, such as the internet cutting out and dropping the call … but in the end, a second call, even with a different agent on the line and everything was sorted.

What a relief, right?

We headed down to have dinner at the hotel restaurant at close to 9pm and the last couple of people still hadn’t found a way to contact Air Canada as the 1-800 numbers weren’t working from Jamaica. I went and ordered my food and then came back to check on them to see if they had found another number. They hadn’t. I called the 1-800 number for them via Skype on my phone and advised there would be quite a wait time. I left them with my cell phone hoping the internet connection would hold and went back to have my dinner.

Unbelievably, an hour later when I was done dinner, the poor lady was still on hold. Actually, she had spoken to someone, gotten nowhere and was back on hold. It was a never-ending story for these folks.

I jumped on Skype on my computer while she continued to hold on my phone. I called the travel agent line again and had it sorted for her in another 20 minutes. Meanwhile she had still gotten nowhere with the phone call she had been on for a total of 1 hour, 42 minutes and 7 seconds.

What a disaster.

Finally, around 11pm, all five of us were sorted with new flights for the next day. Our transfer had been arranged and with any luck, we would arrive in Panama City 24 hours later than planned.

Just when you think the story has a happy ending …

With a good night’s sleep under our belts, we headed to the airport on time and there were no line ups to check in at the Copa desk (one of Air Canada’s Star Alliance partners). The first couple checked in with no problem. Done. Ready to go. The other two girls were at separate desks. One agent was asking for the girl’s proof of departure from Panama. At the other counter, the agent was telling the other girl that she could only check one bag and that her second bag would cost $125 USD to check through to Panama. This was after the bags had arrived in Jamaica without any fee. The real kicker on this though was that her second suitcase was full of items that she was planning to donate when she arrived in Panama.

At this point, my lost luggage was actually a blessing in disguise. Imagine! Since I had no luggage to check with me, I was able to check her second bag as my own for no cost. Problem solved … until they had difficulties finding my newly booked flight! Seriously, the complications just don’t stop!

I’ve got to say though, that between all of us being rested and in better state of mind and the Copa Airlines staff who were super helpful, these issues were handled much better than those of the very long day before.

While I’m now checking-in luggage for my new friend and the Copa Airlines staff are trying to get my ticket to appear on their system, the girl at the other counter is stuck with the same problem … her ticket won’t appear on their system. Thankfully the Copa staff were proactive and started talking to the manager, conversing with Air Canada and making sure it got fixed rather than leaving us to sort it out on our own. What should have taken five minutes for us all to check in, took 30+. A big thank you Copa Airlines for doing what it took to find the problems, correct them and get us all on that flight.

Fast forward …

We boarded the flight to Panama on time, it was smooth sailing and we finally arrived in Panama City. I was hoping that my luggage would have been sent on the same flight routing as the day before and that just maybe, it might be on the baggage belt with everyone else’s. No such luck. I waited until the end of the luggage unloading and then went to baggage services just in case they had marked it and pulled it before it went around the belt as it would have been traveling unaccompanied. Again, no luck, but they gave me phone numbers to call and check on the status.

This incredibly long story started on Thursday, Dec 29th, 2016 when I left my sister’s house at 3:15am. Tonight as I’m writing the final few sentences, the fiasco is still living on with me as my luggage is currently MIA. It’s now Monday, January 2nd at 11pm.

I’ve been able to confirm that it was *supposed* to be sent to Kingston, Jamaica on Dec 30th. Not much of a confirmation as no one can tell me if it actually arrived there or not. I’ve been authorized by Air Canada to spend $100 USD on essentials which they will reimburse me for. And, I’ve been advised to call back in 24 hours. Apparently, although they take all of your contact information (at home, in destination, hotel address and phone number, email addresses) they tell me that I will not be contacted with an update on when to expect it to arrive. It’s still my job to continue following up. In fact, the agent’s exact quote was worth noting ‘You’ll definitely be contacted sometime maybe, but you should call back to follow up.’ #CustomerServiceFail

Air Canada and Aeroplan, if you are reading this … all five of the customers (including myself) who have gone through this ordeal deserve an apology, some kind of compensation for the hours of hold time, stress of being at an unplanned destination overnight, being denied entry into the country with little to no assistance and left to rebook flights on our own. So much of this could have been avoided if our flights were proactively rebooked for the next day and the information had been communicated to the staff in Kingston, Jamaica. Since hotels arrangements were made for each of us and that was communicated … I’m left wondering why the flights weren’t?

And, because it’s January 2nd and I’d like to start the year on a positive note, I’m very thankful to be in Panama City (finally) and have met a couple of great new Canadian friends! Although sanity was lost during the process, new friendships have been gained.

Ever had a travel nightmare of your own? Did you file a complaint with the company / companies involved? Did they ever respond? Leave me some comments!

Travel Nightmares Part 1 – Love

Air Canada Premium Rouge Menu

Anyone who travels regularly has had the unpleasant experience of delayed flights, lost luggage and bad customer service combining into various kinds of travel nightmares. Sadly, this is just part of the travel world. No matter how much preparation you do, you can’t control the weather, mechanical breakdowns, human error or just plain rudeness. All you can do is try to approach it all with kindness.

Errrrrr … hmmm ….

Great advice right? I tried. Really I did.

I’ve been delayed for flights before. I can recall a time when I was leaving for Asia and my flight was delayed due to fog in Halifax. The flights from the night before hadn’t arrived, so we couldn’t fly out. Mass chaos ensued, but being a travel agent, I managed to get a flight later that day with a different routing. United Airways was telling everyone no flights out of Halifax to anywhere for five days as they were booked solid, but I found the options that they were not willing to look for.

I’ve had flights delayed and ended up staying over in Houston, TX on my way to Belize. I’ve had flights cancelled in The Philippines due to political conferences and had to rebook. I’ve been diverted to Quebec city on the way home from Mexico only seconds before landing in Halifax.

I’ve lost my luggage on the way to Peru, on the way home from Mexico, while traveling to Namibia and most recently, on my way to Panama.

You’d think I’d be an expert at things going wrong. But, let me tell you, no amount of travel experience prepares you for all of those things happening in one day and being met with unsympathetic and unhelpful people.

On Dec 29th, 2016 I woke up at 2:45am to gather my last few things before my 3:15am pick up from the lovely folks at One Stop Limo. Thank goodness they are reliable because it is about the only thing that went right all day long! I arrived, got my luggage tags, checked my luggage which was thankfully under the weight limit and cleared security in a jiffy. All the signs of the beginnings of a great trip!

Flight 603 to Toronto for 5:25am boarded pretty close to on time and pushed back only about 10 minutes late to head for de-icing. All normal for traveling in Canadian winter. The flight was smooth until we started our initial descent into Toronto. The captain had warned us that there was weather moving in and that we might hit a bit of turbulence on the way in to land. We did indeed begin to feel a bit of turbulence, but really quite mild all in all. We took a couple of big turns and just as I was beginning to think that we had done a full circle, sure enough the Captain came over the speaker again to advise that weather had moved into Toronto earlier than expected. Snowfall had accumulated and they were clearing the runways with a backlog of traffic waiting. He went on to explain that we had initially been asked to hold for 20 minutes (hence the couple of big turns we had done) and had just been advised it would be 40 minutes. I really appreciated that he was keeping us up to date on what was going on because otherwise my mind gets extra anxious and wonders if something is wrong with the plane. He said we would continue holding for the next 20 minutes and if we were not cleared to land at that time that we would divert to Montreal because we would not have enough fuel to continue holding.

Errrr … mmmm … Not quite so happy to hear of a lowish fuel situation, but at least we had a plan.

Sure enough, another 20 minutes passed and we had not been cleared to land, so after stalling for nearly an hour in the skies above Toronto, we made another turn and off to Montreal we went. 35 minutes later we touched down turbulence free and taxied in to a fueling stop. We had time to check email and connecting flights. At this point, my connecting flight to Kingston, Jamaica had been delayed until 11:30am … there was still a tiny chance that I might make it.

Snow in Montreal

Another 45 minutes or so passed while we refuelled and then the Captain advised that traffic had started moving at the Toronto Airport again. Up, up and away again for our hour long journey back to Toronto. We were supposed to touch down in Toronto at around 7am local time. Instead, we were arriving at around 11am local time.

The staff on board the plane that day were apologetic about the situation, kept us very well informed and advised that there would be staff and a manager on hand at the gate to help all of us with our connecting flights. This was far more than I expected. Despite all of the delays and difficulties, until this point I actually felt it had been handled as best as it could be.

I waited my turn to disembark from the back of the plane and checked that my connecting flight was still delayed to 11:30am. I jumped the long line up of people (sorry people!) to quickly ask the staff if I should run for my gate or wait in line to be rerouted. With a couple of phone calls and a special note for fast security clearance (just at the doors between terminals), she told me they were waiting for me and sent me running.

The Toronto airport is too damn big! Although I set off running, that didn’t last for long seeing as I hadn’t run for at least eight months, plus I had 20lbs of camera gear and another 10lbs of laptop, paperwork and treats etc with me (Thanks for the M&M’s for Christmas mom!). I did what most people do, run, walk and try to catch my breath, run, catch my breath and then make sure I run to the gate so it looks like I ran the whole way. Come on, you do it too!

I got to the gate, went to the front of the line, panting, and said that I was there for the flight. The guy tells me ‘We just started boarding.’ Ug! I ran for that? I thought they were holding the plane for me. Then he tells me that they removed me from the flight because I wasn’t supposed to make it. And, that the flight is full so he would try to find me a seat but couldn’t guarantee it. Gah! I ran for that?

So, I put some money in a machine for a drink of water and ended up with ice tea. Go figure! Not even the vending machines worked right.

I watched priority boarding trickle through and then the masses of Jamaicans with soooo many kids and sooo many carry ons, form a huge line up for boarding zones 3 and 4. Then, my name was called. They had indeed found room for me. Lucky me, it was with priority boarding and in premium rouge class. I went to the front of the priority boarding line and boarded the plane. I sat my ass down in seat 1C, the very front of the plane. My luck continued as there was also room in my overhead bin for my carry on items. About 10 minutes after I boarded, they were already telling people they could not take their roller bags in cabin as there wasn’t enough room in the bins. People were not happy being told that they would have to check their large carry on items. Of course, many hadn’t packed carefully enough for that, so they were unpacking their roller bags to find medications, insulin, duty free, breakables and valuables that they didn’t want checked. What a mess. In all fairness though, this was not Air Canada’s fault. Let me tell you, people returning home to Jamaica after Christmas had a lot of luggage!

Finally, once everyone was on board and doors were closed, I could breathe a sigh of relief that I was at least getting out of the craziness of Toronto and the Canadian weather!

With a piping hot face cloth served up by the flight attendant, I washed the stickiness from my face from my Olympic sprint through the Toronto airport. I’m sure I should’ve received a medal! We were given tablets for our viewing pleasure, a menu to choose our meal option and our choice of orange juice or water … All before take off!

I went for the omelette with goat cheese and sausage. Let me tell you, the upgraded meal was a pleasant surprise! I’ve been known to skip plane meals all together because they often turn my stomach. This, however was served up in hot plates with lovely cutlery, a cloth napkin and tasted like real food instead of mystery mash.

After lunch, with another round of beverages, we were served warm, salted nuts and a choice of chips or a chocolate bar. I didn’t even crack my own treats while I was on the plane.

It’s hard to decide if the price of flying Premium Rouge is worth the extra cost or not, but for me it was a free upgrade and I truly thought the service was great. Good job on Part 1 Air Canada.

Oh wait. Then my luck ran out. Full Stop.

To be continued in “Travel Nightmares Part 2 – Hate” – coming soon.

Feel free to share your sympathies and commiserate with me in the comments!