A few days ago I wrote about my misadventures in Mongolia—the primary misadventure in that case being evicted from my guesthouse after midnight. That experience was certainly not fun while it was happening, but in the end, things turned out rather uneventfully.
As a follow-up, today I thought I’d tell you about a misadventure that was entirely of my own doing. I can blame no one but myself for this (I’d love to blame United Airlines for being so inflexible, but that would be somewhat beside the point). This misadventure is pretty much the biggest mistake I’ve made in 80+ countries of traveling. Oh, and it happened about three weeks ago.
Yes, just three weeks ago. You might expect that my biggest mistake occurred a long time in the past, when I was a young, naïve traveler. Oh, how I wish that were the case—but I’ve committed to giving you the whole truth in all my writing, so that’s what you get.
The morning started well, with a 12-mile run through the streets of Warsaw. It was a rest day for me, with no flights or buses or any other kind of transit after a weekend in Kurdistan and an upcoming connection to Asia. After the run and a nice breakfast, I went up to my room to make some phone calls with Skype.
The first call was to Singapore Airlines, to confirm my meal request for a flight from Tokyo to the U.S. that I was supposed to be on the following week. Manifesto readers may recall that I wrote about the flight over to Tokyo in the last section of the Brief Guide to World Domination. I had another way back from Asia on that trip, and had planned to use the return leg when I came back from the Baltics and Beyond journey.
Anyway, I was looking forward to that flight more than usual. Singapore Airlines is nice in any class of service, and they usually have at least three separate vegetarian meals that can be requested in advance. I had booked this flight in Business Class with Frequent Flyer miles, so that was even better—in addition to the huge menu they give you on board, you can also use a cool service called “Book the Cook” to request one of nine extra-special meals that they will prepare just for you.
Take a look here to see all the options – it is an awesome concept, although on my first flight using this system, they lost my assigned order and had to improvise something else. I was looking forward to giving it another try so they could hopefully follow through on the great idea.
In Warsaw that morning, I rang up the Singapore call center and spoke to someone about the meal request. They had a hard time finding my flight details, so after searching under my name and frequent flyer number, they asked me to look up the ticket number. “No problem,” I said. I pulled the confirmation printout out of my laptop bag… and instantly realized the first part of my big mistake.
Instead of listing July 17 as the return date – the date I had in my calendar –the date of August 6 was listed. Hmmm, this didn’t look good.
“I’ll have to call you back,” I told the agent, and hung up.
I immediately looked through all my printouts and my calendar again, trying to figure out what happened. I knew I had a flight back from Tokyo in August as well, but I thought that was with American Airlines, on the beginning of my next Round-the-World trip with OneWorld.
The more I looked at all my flight reservations, the more worried I became. I did have another flight from Tokyo in August, and in fact it was booked on the same day as the Singapore awards flight. There it was – August 6th, NRT-ORD, connecting to Seattle. And on the other paper, it said August 6th, NRT-LAX, connecting to Seattle.
As the reality set in, I could hardly believe it — I had double-booked myself on two long-haul flights that were each completely non-changeable.
The funny, or not-so-funny, thing about this is that roughly 50% of my flights can be changed at any time with no fee (thanks to the Round-the-World tickets), and another 25% or so can be changed for a $50 or $100 fee. But in the worst possible outcome of travel planning, both of these flights fell into the bottom 25% of being completely non-changeable. I could not move the date up for either one, and thus I was double-booked.
The Singapore Airlines flight could not be changed because it was a Star Alliance Awards ticket. Once you have traveled the first leg of one of those, the return leg is unchangeable for any reason. You miss the flight, that’s it—say goodbye to 90,000 miles or whatever it cost to book.
The American Airlines flight could not be changed because it was the first of a 20-segment Round-the-World ticket. The 19 following segments are completely changeable with no fees… but you absolutely have to make the first one.
This was truly the worst of all possible ticket-mistake combinations. The second part of the mistake (yes, it gets worse) is that I now had no way to get home from Tokyo… in just a few days.
When I realized this, I sat in the chair by the desk for a long time. How could I be so stupid?
I am the travel guru. I am the one who goes to 25 countries a year and fields questions from everyone else about how to get around this nice planet we live on. My friends send me text messages that consist of questions like, “What is the best way to go from Bangkok to Tehran?” and “Should I fly Jet Airways?”
(Answers: Fly to Istanbul or Dubai first, and yes, Jet is great.)
Image by pivic
My Best Excuses
In my defense, I do have 50+ flights a year to all kinds of far-off places. Using a combination of Round-the-World and Awards tickets to keep costs low means that I often have a series of open tickets at any one time, for up to a year in advance.
On this trip, for example, I returned to Europe using a Delta Awards ticket I had booked nearly a year ago, then resumed the Star Alliance trip I also began a year ago (but re-issued twice), then planned to end with the Singapore Airlines return flight that I first went out on in March.
I realize that the system is a little complicated for non-travel addicts, but it usually works well for me. My average flight price is around $300, and it helps me get to places like Northern Iraq and Mongolia that would otherwise be very difficult and expensive to travel to. I’ve used the system to go all kinds of fun, out-of-the-way places, including Malta, Burma, Indonesia, Bulgaria, Easter Island, and so on.
(On second thought, Burma is not really that fun. But I’m glad I went there, and I’ll tell that story later.)
Obviously, however, something in my six-sigma system broke down somewhere, and I encountered the perfect storm of flight planning—two long-haul flights on the same routing, booked on the same day, that were both completely non-changeable.
Sigh. To my credit, I’ve never done this before, but of course that didn’t help me when I was sitting in my Warsaw hotel.
How I Solved It
I wish I could tell you that I knew a secret trick to fixing my mistake and getting my original flight back, but then it wouldn’t be the biggest travel mistake ever. The only thing I could do was accept the reality of the situation and move on. But more specifically, here’s what I did:
1. Allowed myself to be mad for a while. In the end, I had to let it go as I always do, but I am not going to say that I was happy about it. I had made a big mistake and there was no easy way around it. This misadventure was no one’s fault but mine, and I am my harshest critic.
2. Used logical thinking to figure out how to get home. I went through my options—I could try to book another Awards ticket and use the return leg in the future (not so good because my supply of Frequent Flyer miles has been dwindling recently), try to change one of the “non-changeable” flights (sometimes that can work, but it didn’t this time), or play around with the return dates and airport options in hopes of buying a relatively cheap one-way ticket. I ended up booking the flight back from Seoul, which was $400 cheaper than Tokyo even though it connected to a Tokyo flight. I was already connecting in Seoul to go to Mongolia, so that helped a little.
3. Decided to tell you all about it. The one bright spot in thinking through the problem was realizing that I would have to tell you all about it. I don’t mind sharing my mistakes, and I hope that someone can learn from them. Perhaps you won’t encounter the same situation with double-booking yourself back from Japan, but if you’re out to do something significant, you’ll probably make some significant mistakes along the way. Even if you feel like giving up, don’t do it.
The stakes are too high.
Your personal goals are important.
People are counting on you.
Etc, etc. Don’t forget.
And then in the end…
Because of the flight changes, I ended up getting back to Seattle two days early. I have an especially busy travel summer, and had only planned to be home a week before leaving again… so it was nice to have more time at home before I took off.
In another great surprise, I was able to see my brother at the Sea-Tac airport for about an hour. It turned out that he had to visit the Seattle area for work on short notice a few days prior to my arrival, and he left to head back to the East Coast on a United flight two hours after my own United flight arrived. I don’t think that was a coincidence, and I was really glad to see him.
Still, though, I can’t believe I made this huge mistake. If you’re traveling through Tokyo on August 6th and your name is Chris Guillebeau, you’re welcome to use my free Singapore Airlines flight back to LAX. Enjoy the great five-star service and lie-flat seat at my expense. You can even call them up to reserve your choice of nine different meals.
Just remember to not book another flight the same day.
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Image by WilliamHartz