Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas in Germany...Fail!

At least Cardigan is happy that
our Christmas plans fell through


Right now, I'm supposed to be in Brilon, Germany, having just arrived at my wife's parents' house after a nice train ride from Munich. We'd undoubtedly be sitting in the living room drinking good beer or coffee, catching up with Hermann and Meta, and looking forward to my first "Weihnachten" — and Ulla's first Christmas home in four years.

Instead, I'm writing this from home in Medford, Mass., our travel plans the victim of the weather and travel chaos across Europe (which seems to have originated with 5" of snow at Heathrow — pause here so that those of you who've had to travel through this sorry excuse for an airport can spit on the ground — and rippled outward). Here's what transpired...

We decided to fly to Munich and visit Ulla's brother, sister-in-law and nephew first, since we hadn't seen them since our wedding 16 months ago. Then we'd take the train north to Brilon for Christmas Eve (Weihnachten, the most important part of Christmas in Germany). We generally avoid connecting flights, preferring to maximize sleep on the plane without interruption, but we found a good fare on Aer Lingus, which we hadn't flown before, with a short connection through Dublin. Ooops...

We checked in online Mon. night, and everything seemed on track on Tues. for our departure — until 11 a.m. when the first of a series of slightly garbled and misspelled text messages arrived, followed by an email: our flight was indefinitely delayed as Dublin airport was closed until late that afternoon.

With the spelling glitches, someone was obviously generating these text messages manually, especially when the second set of messages told me that my flight from Chicago was cancelled. This was followed five minutes later by a correction (Boston, not Chicago). I envisioned some poor bastard sitting in the Aer Lingus headquarters in Dublin, probably having not slept in days, desperately wishing he/she was with his/her own family and/or at the pub, rather than getting abused by anxious and desperate travelers.

We were told to rebook online or call a toll-free number. There was so much call volume that I kept getting the same message (albeit in a lovely Irish lilt) that they couldn't answer my call. Rebooking online was possible, but the earliest flight we could get out didn't leave until Sun., Dec. 26, getting us to Munich on Dec. 27, which was hardly with it with a Dec. 29 return flight. And trying to rebook to Frankfurt (which made much more sense given that our train tickets were for Dec. 24) and/or change the return date resulted in insane extra fares (like $2000).

We gave up on Aer Lingus and desperately started searching for new flights, using every tool at our disposal. There were scattered options that would have gotten us there on time, albeit at twice the price (or by using every single point plus from our frequent flier accounts). But the news from Europe seemed to get worse and worse. Ulla spoke to her mom who, much as she wanted to see us, suggested strongly that we give it up: even Germany with its advanced transportation system was a mess. There was a distinct possibility that we would get to Germany only to end up trapped in Frankfurt, unable to get a train, bus, car or dogsled up to Brilon.

So we reluctantly and sadly gave up. At least the Aer Lingus website easily allowed me to cancel the flight and get a full refund. (I did finally get through on their phone line, on the 27th try, but after 15 minutes on hold, I spoke to the customer service rep for only 2 minutes before AT&T raised its ugly head and dropped the call from my mobile.)

Ironic that travel problems in Europe ended our vacation: the transportation system there is generally far superior, at least in northern Europe. But they're not equipped for small amounts of snow (something they'd better get used to as the increased snow is, strangely enough, related to warmer temperatures). Much as I hate Logan (the airport in Boston), 5" of snow would have had minimal impact. Hell, the snowplow guys would have been out making snow angels between runs.

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