Hey, getting there is half the fun, right? Nope, not this time. “There” refers to Copenhagen where we were headed on Wednesday, June 22, to begin a cruise to Norway, Iceland, and Scotland. In 2019 before Covid hit, Embry had booked a cruise for the summer of 2020, which was cancelled because of Covid the last two summers and then canceled again this spring. Embry had found a bargain with a small, British cruise company, which notified us in late April of the bad news, which required threats by Embry of bodily harm to them in order to get her money back. Rather than throw in the towel, Embry scrambled for options and managed to get the last remaining reservation on a Holland America cruise ship, leaving Copenhagen on June 22 and returning two weeks later. Lucky break for us since no other options were available and since our previous two cruises with Holland America had been enjoyable.
On June 22, the morning of our flight on Icelandair, I was completing packing when I heard Embry raising her voice on the phone in the bedroom, “That will not work, we have to be in Copenhagen by 1:30 or we will miss our cruise!”
Icelandair had sent Embry an email informing her all of six hours before the scheduled takeoff that the flight had been cancelled. The email noted they were “sorry for the inconvenience.”
There were no other options, the agent said, except a British Air flight, which Embry pointed out would not arrive in Copenhagen until after the ship had departed. Before the conversation concluded 30 minutes later, Embry’s raised voice had elevated to a shout with threats to report the incident to the Washington Post (which runs a column about the worst travel experience ever), as if that would make any difference. What had really ticked her off was the agent’s insistence that since they had offered us an alternative flight, they did not have to give her money back. He argued that it was not their fault that the alternate flight would arrive after the cruise ship had departed. She slammed down the phone and stared into space.
By this time it was almost one in the afternoon. We had to arrive in Copenhagen in 12 hours. What to do? I immediately called the emergency number at Holland America and talked to an agent, who confirmed what had been explained in the materials about the cruise: If a flight arrived in Copenhagen by 1:30 P.M., they would honor the reservation and would not leave without that passenger, anything after that would be problematic. Furthermore, there were no refunds for no-shows.
“But,” I argued, “we are not a no show!”
She replied, “You are a no show to us if you are not there when the ship leaves. By the way, there are 1,600 passengers on the ship. We can’t hold the ship indefinitely for two passengers.”
The challenge was to book another flight which would get us to the Copenhagen airport by 1:30 P.M., the magic hour when the chariot would turn into a pumpkin. How difficult would that be?
After regaining her composure, Embry was on it, desperately searching the web. In less than a half hour she reported back, “Got one! United to Chicago, SAS to Copenhagen. Only option available. Arrives in Copenhagen at 1:20. We got the last two seats on the plane!”
“So that means we have all of 10 minutes to spare.”
I immediately called back the emergency Holland America number and after a 15-minute wait, got another Holland America agent, who after a brief pause followed by a long sigh confirmed that we had a margin of error that was shorter than the phone call I was having with her.
“Good luck!” she said, “Should be an adventure.”
“There is one other problem,” Embry said. The Chicago flight takes off from National in about two hours!”
I threw what I could into my suitcase, crammed it shut as we charged out the door to call an Uber. Embry had packed the night before. I recall noting on the reservation that checking in now must be completed within 90 minutes of departure, which at the time struck me as wishful thinking. “Whoever gets to the airport with an hour and a half to spare, for goodness sake? Ridiculous.” I muttered under my breadth, “Give me a break!”
The wait time for an Uber was less than five minutes; and with light traffic, we made it to National Airport at 2:20 for a 4:00 P.M. departure. I could finally relax, having made to the airport with about an hour and 40 minutes to spare, plenty of time.
National Airport, however, was jam packed with passengers waiting at the United check in. In about 15 minutes we had managed to work our way to the front of the line where we were met by a no-nonsense, female agent, who after taking our passports, returned to give us the bad news: “We are not checking your bags, and you are not getting your boarding passes. It is 2:35. Your time requirement for checking in has passed. You can rebook for tomorrow.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “Surely, you are not serious!”
I do not recall exactly what I said next, but whatever it was caused the agent to abruptly leave to be replaced by a slightly older woman, whom I presumed was her supervisor. This lady looked at me, then looked at Embry, shook her head and handed me the boarding passes.
“Have a good trip,” she replied, smiling.
“Thank you, Jesus!” I replied, “I mean, thank you very much!”
We then bolted toward the security check point, only to witness why the new restrictions on checking in were in effect. Several hundred people were in a line that was so long it could not fit into to the labyrinth employed to get people through security. Even worse, the line did not appear to be moving. I looked at my watch. We had just over an hour to get through security and make it to the gate. I could not see any way we could do it.
“What on Earth is going on at National Airport?” I commented to Embry. I had never seen a line this long at National Airport or just about anywhere else for that matter.
For the first 30 minutes our prospects for getting to the gate before it closed seemed borderline hopeless. Then when a very serious, stressed out, older guy in a suit showed up and barked out some orders, ever so slowly the line began to start to move, then moved faster. A lot of people were moved to the “Pre” line; and in another 15 minutes we were in, racing to the gate, arriving with 15 minutes to spare. The takeoff was delayed for 20 minutes to accommodate a handful of other distressed passengers, who I presumed were farther back in the line. Maybe they would have held the flight for us too, but who knows? There was not an empty seat on the plane. We had squeaked in.
At this point we had cleared three major hurdles. Embry had been able to book a replacement flight for both legs of the flight, which before she booked were totally full except for two empty seats on each plane. We had gotten boarding passes and checked bags in violation of the new policies and procedures of United Airlines, and an airport executive had appeared out of nowhere to speed up getting passengers through security. If any one of these factors had gone against us, we would not have made it.
The last major hurdle was getting from Chicago to Copenhagen. Would the flight land by 1:30? The flight took off on time and with a strong tailwind, landed a half hour early. Eureka!
It turned out that on the flight from Chicago, about 50 passengers were also on the cruise. We were not the only ones worried about getting to the ship on time.
I thought, “Embry’s Guardian Angel is working overtime.”
So here we are on the cruise ship, en route to Norway under cloudy skies and 12-knot breezes. More to follow….