I don’t know how I feel about airports. This is strange for me to admit because I am the type of person who has strong feelings about almost everything in my life, including completely inconsequential things. On one hand, I love airports – the hustle, the crowds, the excitement of upcoming travel. Sliding open doors of the airport means that the daily routine of your life just became suspended. The next project in the office and the missing ingredient for tonight’s dinner are suddenly meaningless, the responsibilities of cat and house care have been reassigned, there are no chores to steal the free time or busy work to fill in empty spaces. The airport pauses everything, even parts of your life running on deep autopilot for years and lets you go somewhere else, do something else, even be someone else for a few weeks. It’s magical! At the same time, the sheer number of times I’ve lost my sanity, money, time, and all rational ability to think at airports is staggering. I’d like to say I am generally a coherent, rational person. And as a coherent, rational person, I will be the first to acknowledge – I am a shuddering mass of impulsive irrationalities at an airport. That entire place is my kryptonite. I have traveled so much over the last 20 years and have had so many mishaps that I could write a book on this topic alone.
It all starts before I even get to the airport. Standing in front of an empty backpack immediately I am faced with the memory of my very first international trip back in 2001 when I painstakingly packed a giant suitcase full of clothes for the trip. The airport happily accepted my baggage and immediately lost it. I spent two weeks in Europe washing my one pair of underwear in the sink and wearing the same shirt and pants every day. Burned by this bad experience, on the next trip to New York to perform at a comedy show, I shoved all necessary performance props in my carry-on bag. A few hours later, as a very perplexed TSA agent retrieved a hammer, a box of nails, and multiple screwdrivers from my bag, I face-palmed myself to the uproarious laughter of the crowd behind me. It was a bigger laugh than I got on the NY stage the next evening. Nowadays, packing is no longer the stressful experience it was in the early days, as I know how to pack light and split all essential items between a carry-on and a small personal backpack for redundancy.
Next comes timing the arrival at the airport. My first instinct is always to arrive at least three hours ahead, barge through security, and stand at the gate for two and a half hours, anxiously waiting for the plane to arrive. Scratch that, my first instinct is to wake up the morning of the flight and immediately start calculating how many hours until the plane departs, even if the flight is late that night. Understandably, this drives Victor crazy. His itineraries are always jam-packed with sights and activities and never include a five-hour window to spend at the airport. But I have been burned by late arrivals more than once. Every single one of these happened when traveling in large groups and relying on others to keep track of the time. The first time, sometime in 2005, when the boarding rule of “check-in at least 45 minutes before boarding or get bumped off the flight” rule just got implemented and before it was possible to check in online, we arrived at O’Hare well ahead of time. Unaware of this new rule and noting that security lines were minimal, we took our time chatting and joking around while checking in. All of my friends checked in successfully and were waiting for me, as I unsuccessfully tried to check-in. I was denied a seat on the plane and was automatically put in a “standby” queue. The next four hours, as my friends departed for New York and I ran around the airport, desperately trying to get on the next plane were some of the most stressful in my life. We were going to perform in a yearly NY comedy festival and my absence was going to let the entire team down. I ended up crying at three very uncomfortable flight attendants until one of them finally got me a seat on the next plane.
But what happens if instead of missing your plane, you miss the entire airport? Yes, we’ve done that as well. I examined our plane tickets to and from Japan carefully – I knew the departure time and date, the airport name, and the terminal. I researched the airport in Tokyo and noted down which train to take to downtown. I was ready. As our plane circled Tokyo, the flight attendant gave an oddly long, rambling, and urgently sounding speech… all in Japanese. The passengers were visibly annoyed. Victor and I just sat there, wondering what was going on. As we disembarked, my directions on how to find the train station made no sense. We finally found someone who spoke English and they pointed us to the station and even told us which train to take. The train name was also different from what I expected, but in a fortunate turn of events, the time to get downtown was significantly shorter! We had a wonderful time in Japan and took the same train back to the airport. We arrived with two hours to spare and searched the displays for our flight. It was missing. We tried to check in through a kiosk. We couldn’t. I found a helpful flight attendant who finally pointed out the obvious – we were at the wrong airport. Suddenly everything made sense. Our arriving flight to Tokyo, unbeknownst to us, was redirected to another airport. All the clues were there, we were just too frazzled and too impatient to start our Japanese adventure to figure it out. Instead of checking our tickets on our last day, we relied on my memory that we arrive and depart from the same airport. And here we were, an hour away from the correct airport, with our flight leaving in an hour. I spent another five minutes trying to convince the very patient flight attendant to help me bend the rules of time and space and somehow get us to our flight in time. Finally, it became evident – we had to buy new tickets to get home. It was devastating and rage-inducing at the same time. We lost a significant amount of time and money due to such a ridiculous mistake. Defeated, we bought one-way tickets for the next day and decided to spend our bonus evening in nearby Yokohama exploring its Chinatown. Surprisingly, we ended up having a very nice evening. We explored streets with decorative red lanterns and stuffed ourselves with delicious dumplings, a bit of a preview of our upcoming trip to China. Upon arriving back, we were surprised to find out that my credit card travel protection actually covered our mishap and gave us money back for the tickets. All in all, we got an extra day of vacation for the price of a little self-humiliation. Not the worst deal.
But the worse part of airports for me is the ever-present looming, terrifying layover. Flights leave late, the layover is always too short, the next flight is getting ready to take off as you race down an unfamiliar terminal… This has happened to us too many times to count, with the most recent story in 2017 on a flight to Guatemala with a layover in Mexico City. We had a very comfortable three-hour layover, enough to wait out all lines, grab a snack taco, and casually stroll to our gate. And then our departing flight was an hour late… And then two hours… and then, we sat in the plane, on the tarmac, with the pilot announcing more and more delays for another full hour. And just like that, our comfortable layover disappeared into thin air, replaced by panic and hurried itinerary remaking. Sitting on the plane, I wrote pleading emails to our Airbnb hosts in Antigua, asking if it was possible to check in a day later, as it seemed we were going to miss our connection and would only arrive the following day. The moment the flight landed, we sprinted to the front of the plane. It took forever for the doors to open as we interrogated the flight attendant about the status of our connecting flight. In the end, the only advice she had was, “Run!” And we did. We ran out of the plane, down the corridor, hurried through customs, and pleaded our way through registration where we were told it was unlikely we would make our plane. In the end, another flight delay saved us. Our flight from Mexico City to Guatemala was also delayed, just enough for us to race onboard, panting and heaving.
There are a lot of these stories about missed flights, missed connections, and missing luggage, but they have one thing in common. Every single one of these stories ends with “And then we had a great time in….” And that’s why there will be plenty more stress-inducing, hair-pulling, flight attendant-interrogating, running, and huffing through the halls of airport stories.