© 2017 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
For many years, I've had a rule that goes, "Always have a Plan B, even for Plan B!" Occasionally, I get to C or D—and sometimes even to F or G—before I find success.
What we're talking about here is dealing with the unexpected, and this often comes with situations where you don't control all the variables. Basically, this pretty much means any time you leave the house. You are immediately subject to the weather, traffic, and people, all of which can be unpredictable, and in the case of people, even irrational.
To be sure, you can and should plan for success (see my essay from May 2011), but variables outside your control can quickly throw a wrench in the works. I've seen many people ruin their own day and that of those around them when something doesn't go according to their plan. As yelling, screaming, and generally having a tantrum are unlikely to resolve the problem, far better that you sit down, have a piece of chocolate, breathe deeply, and count to 10. And if that doesn't work, count to 100 (then 1,000). Then come up with a Plan B.
In this essay, I'll describe some of my last-minute plan changes, many of which involve travel. I'll also mention several instances in which no alternate plan was possible; it was just a matter of accepting the situation and not worrying about things over which one has no control.
The Ticket that Was then Wasn't
In late 1978, my wife and I left Australia for an indefinite period to work and travel. After some months of planning, we booked airline tickets from Adelaide, Australia, to Washington DC, with stops (going east) in New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. The trip would take two weeks. On May 25th, American Airlines Flight 191 crashed in Chicago. What made that significant was the plane was a DC-10, the type of aircraft we were going to fly across the Pacific with Air New Zealand. Immediately, all DC-10s, worldwide, were grounded; however, we didn't realize the impact on us for a good while, by which time, the alternate routing options were gone, and we were left with tickets that could not be used.
When next we went back to our travel agent, we had no Plan B. However, sitting on a desk in the office was a globe, and as I was spinning it around, I noticed that one could get from Australia to Washington DC by going west. Yes, it was a longer trip, but at least it didn't compete with all the passengers trying to rebook flights across the Pacific. And we didn't have any need to go east anyway. By the end of that meeting, we'd pinned down a viable alternative with tickets from Adelaide to London with unlimited stopovers and up to one year to complete the trip. The rules were based on distance travelled. [We'd buy a ticket to Washington DC once we were in London.] At that time, Adelaide airport did not have international flights, so we'd planned to leave the country via Sydney. As luck would have it, if you look on a globe, the following cites are pretty much in a straight line: Sydney, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Mumbai (called Bombay at that time), Athens, Rome, Geneva, Paris, and London. We included all those on our tickets and added a side trip to Hong Kong as well, for an extra 15% cost. [En-route, we skipped Athens, and we took five weeks to get to DC.]
The result was that after months of planning and my globe spinning, we had a chance to do it all over again, factoring in all the things we'd learned thus far. And we visited many more places and took longer. So, Plan B can be just as good as Plan A–and maybe even better—if you don't obsess with Plan A.
I traveled to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for a conference, and took my wife and son with me. As it was cold, we'd packed winter clothes. From there, we flew to San Francisco, but our luggage didn't make it, and the weather was very warm. As we'd planned a driving trip down the coast, and had no planned itinerary, there was no way our luggage could catch up with us, so we arranged to pick it up when we came back some days later. We bought a few toiletries and some socks and underwear and headed off, enjoying the weather.
On another occasion, I flew home, but my luggage didn't come out on the belt. As it happened, it was standing outside the plane in the rain and got somewhat wet, and was delivered to my house 24 hours later, after I'd already left on another trip. The challenge was to come up with a whole other case as well as toiletries and clothing in the meantime.
When I taught seminars, I carried boxes of heavy overhead transparencies and other gear, all of which fit in a large lockable attaché case. I was headed home from San Francisco and boarded the car rental bus for my terminal. I put my case upfront on a large pile of luggage. However, when I got off, my case was gone, with no clue as to where it was. (Apparently, it had fallen out the door when another passenger pulled their case out of the pile, and the driver hadn't noticed!) Minutes later, an agent from an airline other than mine arrived in her bus to find this unaccompanied, locked case lying at the curb. She saw my business card luggage label, and contacted me to tell me she had it. She then put it on a flight—at no charge to me—and sent it home to me. I got her name and address and sent her a reward.
The good news is that after two million air miles over 40-odd years, I have never lost any luggage permanently. And of those few times when my luggage has gone astray, it has almost always been on the flight home, which is nowhere near as bad as on the flight out.
Certainly, one should not put critical or valuable items in checked luggage. And in my case, I never lock my checked bags. Security personnel have a right to inspect them, so no point in having them damage the locks by gaining entry. By the way, on each trip, I put a printed copy of my flight itinerary inside my checked luggage.
Money Troubles in Uruguay and France
At the Montevideo international airport in Uruguay, I met a Dutch woman. She had no traveler's checks or cash, just a cash-machine card. Unfortunately, she couldn't get the cash machine to work, and its being entirely in Spanish didn't help, as she spoke no Spanish. As I arrived, she was in tears with no Plan B and feeling very sorry for herself after a long flight from Europe. I too failed to get money from the machine, but I did have US$100 in $20 bills, so I went to the airport bank. Unfortunately, the bills had been printed/cut off-center, and the bank said they looked like forgeries, and refused to change them. I pleaded for a bit and, finally, they relented and changed $20. With the proceeds, I bought two bus tickets to the city center, and took my newly acquired Dutch friend with me. There, I found a cheap hotel and paid for two rooms. In the main street, I found a moneychanger who happily changed the remainder of my "funny looking" bills and my friend found a cash machine that she could understand. With that, she was able to pay me back.
With the increasing proliferation of cash machines around the world, it was our first time traveling without travelers' checks. We were in Strasbourg, Alsace, France. Now US telephone dials have long had letters as well as digits, and this transferred to keypads, and was in common use on cash machines all over the US. Not so in Europe, however, but there was I standing at a cash machine in France, with my card, but not knowing how to translate my alphabetic PIN to the corresponding digits on the keypad! It took me some effort to locate a business that had letters on a keypad, so I could see the letter-to-digit correspondence. [As a result, I have a letter-to-digit table stored in my pocket computer and laptop, but, of course, I've never needed it since, as international keypads now have letters as well.]
The Cancellation of a Play
A German friend met me in London, and after much discussion about the plays on offer, we bought half-price tickets for a performance of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit". As that started at 7:30 pm, we went off to have a leisurely supper. At 7:30, an employee of the theater announced that "Due to technical difficulties, tonight's performance is cancelled, and you can get a refund at the box office." I grabbed my friend and raced out to get at the front of the refund line. The good news was that most plays started at 8 pm, so we had a chance to go elsewhere. The bad news was we didn't have a second choice! However, as we exited the theater, across the street was another one, with a show about which we had no real knowledge. From the brief description given to us by the usher, we bought tickets. After all, we had planned for theater that night, and theater there would be, damn it! Well, don't you know, we very much enjoyed the performance of "Stomp", which involved a percussion group using their bodies and ordinary objects to create a physical theatre performance using rhythms, acrobatics, and pantomime. [More than 10 years later, it is still playing in London.]
A Poke in the Eye with a Blunt Stick
I'd arranged a 2-week trip with business in Copenhagen, Denmark, and visits with friends in that city and the island of Fyn. Two weeks prior, on a Friday evening, dark spots started floating across one of my eyes. I'd recently moved to a new county and had no eye doctor, so I had to find one. Then, they were not open on weekends, the following Monday was a holiday, and the doctor didn't practice on Tuesdays, so it was Wednesday before I got to see him. He very quickly diagnosed a torn and partially detached retina, and insisted a specialist make room for me that day. Within hours of that visit, the problem was fixed with laser surgery, but I was grounded for at least two weeks. No flying for me any time soon! Of course, I had to cancel my trip and handover my meeting secretarial duties to another committee member.
Although I'd very much looked forward to seeing good friends again, that was not an option, so there was no point dwelling on what might have been. You need to "Just get over it!"
[BTW, the section title is from a sarcastic Aussie saying that goes, "That was better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick!" which translates to "It wasn't very good at all."]
A Turn-Around in Flight
In September 2015, I departed Beijing, China, for Newark, New Jersey and Washington DC. I was minding my own business in Business Class, watching an interesting movie, "Interstellar", waiting for my supper to be served. Well, don't you know, my time in Paradise was interrupted by an announcement from the cockpit that "Due to a mechanical problem, we are returning to PEK". In all my years of airplane travel, that had never happened to me before. We were an hour out of PEK, so it took another hour to get back. The airline company planned to dump fuel, but apparently could not get Chinese permission to do so, and we landed with near-full tanks. However, we were assured that it was not an emergency, so there was no cause for alarm.
We landed back at PEK, but not even the crew knew what would happen next, so we all stayed in our seats parked out in the midfield some distance from a terminal. Unfortunately, the crew cut the power to the audio and video system, so I didn't get to finish my movie. An hour later, ground crew arrived, and we walked down stairs to waiting buses that took us to a terminal. Assistance was sporadic and insufficient. Eventually, we found ourselves at the backside of passport control, where staff let us back in to the country and put a "Cancel" stamp over our "Departed" stamps in our passports. By the time I caught the train to the baggage area my bag was on the carousel, and soon I was out on the street at bus stop 11 where we'd been told to wait for pickup. Right in front of me was a bus with a sign UA88, the flight I'd been on and that was cancelled. I boarded it to find one other passenger there. After 20 minutes, we were the only ones, which we thought was most strange, when a bi-lingual passenger joined us and found out from the driver that it was a bus for the crew. Our (unmarked) passenger bus was nearby. We boarded that along with five others and soon headed out to the airport Crowne Plaza hotel.
We arrived at the hotel at 8:45 pm to find 25 fellow passengers in line ahead of us being "processed". Our passports were photocopied, and we were given a room key and details of the rescheduled flight going out at the same time the next day. I went to my room to find a very elegant setting, in which I would not ordinarily stay otherwise. I had trouble connecting to the internet and difficulty understanding the front-desk assistant who explained I needed to pay about $20 for 1-day of connection. Bugger!
Down in the dining room, we were given a meal coupon for the evening meal, which I can assure you was not the beef I'd been anticipating in BusinessFirst on UA88! In fact, the offerings were pitiful and none of us were inspired to eat much at all. Of course, numerous dishes contained shellfish, and none was identified! As a number of fellow passengers came together at one table, I dubbed it the Gilligan's Island table.
Back in my room I found email from United Airlines telling me I'd been booked on the same flight the following day, but if I'd like to see my alternatives, I could do so. Knowing there was a direct flight to IAD, where I really wanted to be, I looked for that, and lo and behold, it had space available. Although I'd be home a day late, I'd arrive an hour earlier than planned and would not have a stopover. The ironic thing is that I'd wanted to go on that direct flight both ways when I booked the ticket, but it was $2,500 cheaper if I had a stopover in each direction, yet now I was going home on that very flight without paying extra.
A Train Strike in NW Italy
It was May and humid, and I was in Italy. I rode a train north from Rome to La Spezia, my plan being to spend time visiting the five towns of Cinque Terre and hiking the paths between them, before going south to Lucca, Pisa, and Siena. On arrival in La Spezia, I discovered that due to a workers' strike the regional train service was intermittent or non-existent, depending on one's destination. Fortunately, I had no confirmed accommodation reservations that needed to be cancelled or changed. Now I'd already changed my original plan, so was on Plan B, but as I spoke to a very helpful assistant at the tourist office, Plan C materialized.
I walked about 1 km through the town to a bus stop for a number of routes. Within five minutes, my bus arrived, and I boarded. It was crowded with standing room only; however, someone got off at the first stop and I was able to get a seat. I filled the one luggage rack with my backpack and daypack. The 11-km journey along the coast involved many tight turns and I felt some motion sickness, but managed to hold on to my lunch.
We pulled into the small town of Porto Venere where the bus route terminated. It was the end of a number of major hiking trails that came south from Cinque Terre, and given the beautiful weather, it was no surprise that the hikers were out in force. I walked 100 meters into the town where I found a friendly young policewoman who spoke passable English. She gave me some directions for the tourist office (which didn't open until 16:00) and some accommodation tips. I dropped by a nice hotel right on the waterfront, and although it wasn't too expensive, I went off in search of alternative places.
I soon found my Shangri La, the hotel Genio. It was built up a steep hillside with lots of steps and terraces that overlooked the main plaza. The friendly Russian front desk assistant, Igor, was happy to give me a very good rate for two nights if I paid cash. Breakfast on the terrace between 08:00 and 10:00 was included as was high-speed internet access at his desk. And all for €65 a night. Igor took me to see Room 6, way up the back with its own little garden under fruit trees. It was a very nicely appointed double room with en-suite bathroom, all quite modern and spacious. I accepted his offer and went down to check in. By the time I unpacked and settled in it was 15:30. A church clock chimed at 15-minute intervals.
I have to say that this unplanned diversion was one of the highlights of the trip. It also reinforces my usual style of travel, to have as much flexibility as possible. As such, I don't lock in a lot of accommodation, and I don't do plan-well-in-advance guided tours. The odds are very high that on such a tour I'd want to stay longer at some places and not at all at others, but that is not possible. [This is a major difference between being a traveler versus a tourist!]
When the INS says "Jump"!
In 2007, my wife and I applied for US citizenship, and after we were fingerprinted, we sat back and waited for our interview to be scheduled. That happened 13 months later when we received a letter from the then INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) telling us where and when to report. Unfortunately, the date was right in the middle of a 2-week trip to Croatia and Slovenia we'd planned months before. Well, one does not negotiate such things with the INS. When they say "jump", one replies, "how high?" So, we cancelled our trip.
I am happy to report that I passed the written and oral English-language test, I was made a US citizen, and I finally got to Croatia in 2012 and again in 2016, and to Slovenia in 2016. (See my essay from April 2010, "The Road-to-US-Citizenship".)
A Non-Visit to a Castle
I've been to Prague, Czech Republic, numerous times, and love that city. On one visit, I decided to visit the famous Karlštejn Castle, which is just a short train ride out of the city, and to take a friend with me. We walked from the station into the little village to find that this was the one day of the week the castle was closed. Don't you just hate that when that happens! The good news was that later in the week, a business colleague took us in his car for a drive around the countryside, and not only did we visit the castle, but we got into its off-limits inner sanctums, through a "friend of a friend". It was an impressive place to visit.
Sadly, this was not the first time I've shown up at a place to find it's "the closed day", and it probably won't be the last.
The Striking View from the Top
It was December, and after business in Paris, I visited Normandy. From there, I went to Avraches from where I visited Mont Saint-Michel. I dropped by the tourist office to get a small map and brochure. There was no fee to enter the walled town and no English guided tours were available, so I was left to make my own plan. The many tourist shops were opening, and the patisseries were setting out their freshly baked goods. It seemed to me a good idea to find a nice warm place and a hot drink. Auberge Saint Pierre looked as good a restaurant as any, so I went in and in my best French ordered a large hot chocolate "si vous plait".
The narrow main path meandered up a steady incline through the little town between the shops and restaurants. However, when I got to the entrance of the famous abbey near the top a sign informed me that it was closed just for the day. And all because of a monument/museum workers strike. Don't you just hate that? Well, they say that something good comes out of everything and, in this case, I saved the €8 admission charge. I chatted with some disgruntled tourists, which included a busload of Japanese. [I'd never seen Japanese get angry, but in this case, they were; this was to be a highlight of their trip and they wouldn't be able to "come back tomorrow" as was suggested by one of the picketing workers.]
As for me, Plan B involved walking around the town's ramparts taking photos of the church on the rock above and the mudflats exposed by the low tide. At sea level, I walked several hundred meters along the causeway to get a good photo of the whole island, which was about 1 km around. Then I walked out on the mudflats near the base of the fortifications. A sign warned of quicksand, so I made sure I followed the footsteps of the people ahead of me, that is, right up until the footsteps disappeared!
Let's Stop for some Fuel
There I was minding my own business on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Washington DC, when I noticed on the large flight map on the front wall of my cabin that we were flying a figure-eight over the New England states of the US. The power grid over New York City had gone down and air traffic was stopped from flying over that corridor. However, we circled around for so long, the pilot decided to stop off at Boston to refuel. Unfortunately, no-one there was ready for us, and we were on the ground for some hours before we could continue. Some passengers were actually flying back to Boston from DC, and after they made such a fuss, they were let off the plane, but their checked luggage would have to catch up with them later. Fortunately, my ride home was arranged when I landed, so apart from being a few hours late, I was not otherwise inconvenienced.
Landing at the Wrong Airport
Washington National Airport (DCA) has a nighttime curfew. I was flying there on a delayed flight, but the pilot was told that he could not land there. Now at the time, I lived near Washington Dulles Airport, to the west, but did they divert there to make it convenient for me? No, they sent us to Baltimore Washington International, and then bused us to National and Dulles. Don't you just hate that when that happens!
Chaos in Orlando
Pan Am airlines had pretty much gone out of business, and a cruise line had taken over its operations. My wife and son and I were on a flight home from Puerto Rico, which stopped in Orlando, Florida. Things were so disorganized with flights being cancelled or delayed that the passengers were about to mutiny, I kid you not. A young mother was so abusive, she was arrested, and her small children were taken into protective custody. Airport police appeared riding mountain bikes, and tried to maintain order. I knew that it was not a safe place to be and that the chance of our flight leaving soon or at all was minimal, so I quietly took my family back out to the main check-in desk. The good news was there was only one customer in front of me, but she was so obnoxious and gave the agent a hard time that once that passenger was processed, the agent needed a mental-health break, and left the counter for 15 minutes. When she returned she was composed, I treated her nicely, she got us on a flight the next day, and we unexpectedly stayed overnight near the airport.
Moving to Utah
Early in 2017, a friend announced that she was moving to Utah. In a fit of madness, I offered to drive her and her possessions there in a rental truck. After we'd each slept on the idea for a week, we decided that it might even be fun. The most direct route would be to go north a bit through Maryland and Pennsylvania, and then west on Interstate Highway 70 (I70) through West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and on into Utah, and then north on state highways to Park City, the location of her new home.
Despite all our planning, Mother Nature had other ideas. First, a major winter storm was forecast for the Northern Virginia area, our starting point, and another was already in progress in the Midwest, through which I70 ran. As a result, I quickly pulled together a new plan to avoid any ice and snow. Our final route was south through Virginia, and across the country on I40 through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. And we drove an extra 700 miles. But hey, when you are sitting in a moving van driving at 70 miles/hour, you don't have much time to check out the view. Besides, it allowed us to have a great visit to the Arches National Park.
No Trains Today!
After a very pleasant week in Alsace, France, my wife and I fronted up to the Strasburg train station to buy tickets to Mainz, Germany, for that morning. But, au contraire mon ami, that turned out to be impossible because the train workers were having a little sit-down with coffee and croissants! There would be no trains today, monsieur!
We needed a Plan B right then and there! Nearby was a car-rental counter and "Yes, perhaps we have a car available; just let me look as soon as I have finished my coffee and croissant." [The agent was marginally friendlier than the grouchy train agent had been.] Anyway, we got our car, loaded up our bags, and headed north. As we were no longer required to follow a route, we took advantage of the flexibility and stopped off to visit the Marginot Line along the way. [This never-completed fortified wall was built after WWI to stop the Germans from invading again. Unfortunately, they made an end-run through Belgium where there was no wall, tricky Devils!]
Eventually, we got to our host family in Mainz where we stayed one night instead of the two we'd planned, before. As we were eating breakfast the next morning, the news broke that the Gulf War invasion had started. As a result, there would be extra security around all flights by US carriers.
When confronted with unexpected situations, try to take advantage of them. Be open-minded. Ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that can happen if I don't get to follow my current plan?" Remember, it's the journey, not the destination. In any event, pack a novel, a deck of playing cards, and maybe some ear plugs, just in case you have to sleep overnight at an airport, bus station, or ferry terminal.