Sunday, November 6, 2011

let's talk about airplanes.

My family has had terrible luck with vacations that involve airplanes. Not because any of us are afraid of flying or get sick on planes. Our mere presence in airports seemed to make things go haywire.

The first time I traveled via airplane was when I was 13 years old. My parents decided to take us to Las Vegas to visit one of my mom’s friends there. We were going during the winter: my dad is a farmer, so no traveling happens during spring and fall. We live near a fantastic lake, so we wanted to spend as much of our summers there as possible. That left winter. Besides, no one wants to be in the Midwest for the winter.

We were to fly out of the Sioux Falls airport, which was pretty tiny in those days. (It’s still relatively tiny, but they’re adding on!) Once we got there, we waited. The announcement came: the flight was delayed for an hour and a half. If you’ve ever been to the Sioux Falls airport, you know that there is NOTHING to do there. You could get a $6 hotdog or go shopping for t-shirts with buffalo on them, but that is it. So we waited. And waited. And waited. Six hours later, they told us our flight was canceled. We rolled our eyes, rescheduled for the next morning, and drove the 80 miles back home.

The next day, we came back to the airport, ready to try again. We made it to Minneapolis, no problem. As we waited for our connecting flight, there was an announcement: they had overbooked the flight, so would anyone pretty please be willing to take a bump for a flight later that evening? They would upgrade your tickets to first class if you did! My dad gave my mom some pleading eyes, but she shook her head no. We had already lost one day of vacation, and she wasn’t willing to give up another one. It took first-class tickets, $1500 in additional airline tickets, food vouchers, and plenty of badgering from my dad for my mom to cave.

The flight attendants shoved us on a bus to the Mall of America, where we were to wile away the numerous hours before our flight. As a 13 year old country bumpkin, this was paradise. I probably had all of $30 to my name, but I had to try with all my might not to blow it all on junk. I’m sure I was only partially successful. We even had time for a few rides at Camp Snoopy before it was time to go back to the airport.

Many hours later, we got back to the airport and on our plane. We flew first class, as promised, and I sat next to a little old woman who spent most of the trip telling me stories in Chinese. We finally arrived in Las Vegas, exhausted but extremely happy to be there. Our flight home was uneventful, though we did have the opportunity to take another bump – Mom, however, said that enough was enough.

It wasn’t long before we began planning our next vacation. The $1500 in ticket vouchers expired in one year, and there was no way we were going to let those go to waste. When we travel, my family only goes to places where we know people – so who would be the lucky recipient of a visit from us? Why, my dad’s brother Mike in Virginia, of course!

We planned to go in winter again, so the weather in Virginia would be crisp and beautiful. We were looking for a change from the grey snow and biting wind of South Dakota. Mike and his family lived a little more than three hours from Washington DC, so we would fly into Washington DC and have Mike and company meet us there for two days of sight-seeing.

In theory, it was a perfect plan.  We arrived at the Sioux Falls airport, ready and raring. Lo and behold, our flight was delayed. We had two options: we could wait and see when our plane would be ready to go, or we could take seats on a flight going to Minneapolis that evening. If we took seats on the later flight, we would miss our connecting flight to DC. If we took our chances with the delayed flight, we still might be able to make it. We decided to gamble and wait for the original flight. Our plane landed in Minneapolis just in time for us to make a mad dash to our connecting flight. It was just like all those cheesy movies: we ran through the airport, almost leaving behind a kid or two. When we boarded our flight, we plopped down in our seats with huge sighs of relief. We would get to Washington DC after all!

Or so we thought. An hour and a half later, we still had not left the ground. No announcement had been made, so we had no idea what was wrong. Come to find out, three of the four airplane engines wouldn’t light. They finally passed along this information, and we were informed that we would be grounded in Minneapolis that night. So it turns out if we had taken the later flight in Sioux Falls, we would’ve boarded a different plane in Minneapolis and would’ve ended up in DC that night after all. Go figure.

They herded us off the plane and gave us vouchers for a nearby hotel/casino. We were hungry and cranky, and we soon found out that our luggage had gone on without us. Since we were planning on being indoors until we arrived in sunny Virginia, our winter coats were locked in the car and our light coats were packed away in our suitcases. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs and whatever goofy stuff we had packed on our carry-ons.

We got to the hotel/casino around 11 pm, and we needed to be back at the airport by 6 the next morning. We hadn’t eaten since who knows when, so we got there, we used our food vouchers for some dinner at the skeevy in-house restaurant. All of our toiletries were en route to DC, so we begged some toothpaste off the front desk. They were out of complimentary toothbrushes, so we had to use the old “toothpaste on your finger” trick. No one had pajamas, so we all slept in our clothes.

This whole time, our poor uncle Mike had been waiting at the airport for us. This was before any of us had cell phones, and no one had gotten the name of the hotel where Mike and family were staying. Dad called the airport, and they paged Mike – luckily, he had been standing right next to the counter the whole time. Dad informed him of our plight, and Mike agreed to be back the next day to pick us up.

We got on our plane bright and early the next morning, and we arrived in Washington DC. However, our luggage went to a different airport than we did. After we retrieved all that and finally got ourselves in order, our two days of sightseeing had turned into less than half a day. We had to do some extreme prioritizing. White House? Nope. Smithsonian? Not this time. 
This was the closest we got to the Jefferson Memorial.
We spent our six hours running around like madmen, seeing as many major monuments in as little time as possible. By the end of the day, we were exhausted, but we had barely scratched the surface.  

We spent the remainder of our vacation doing touristy things in Virginia, and it was great. We hung around on Virginia Beach, saw a cell where Jefferson Davis was imprisoned, and toured an aircraft carrier on the naval base in Norfolk. 
THIS aircraft carrier.
However, there were still so many things that we’d missed out on in Washington DC. So I was thrilled to hear that we’d give it another go. In February of my junior year of high school, my parents had promised us a vacation. We considered locations such as San Antonio and Las Vegas, but we ultimately decided to go back to Washington DC and Virginia.

Sadly, it was never to be. Right before we were to purchase the tickets, the prices skyrocketed. Flying a family of five to Virginia was about to cost my parents a small fortune, and they made the executive decision that we weren’t worth it. I was crushed, but looking back, they were right: three whiny kids TOTALLY weren’t worth it. As a compromise, they offered up a trip to Disney World the following year (which was awesome) and a short trip over the weekend we had planned to fly to Virginia. Our weekend trip ended up being a trip to the Spam museum in Austin, Minnesota, but that’s a story for another time.

Our trip to Disney World in 2005 went off without a hitch... except when we got caught in an electrical storm and almost ran out of fuel because we had to hover around the airport for hours thanks to the airplane's equipment shorting out, but whatever. Our next long-distance family trip was slated for spring break in 2008. I was a junior in college, and when my parents offered to bring me along to Las Vegas, I jumped at the chance. A trip to Las Vegas is a trip to Las Vegas, even if I was only 20 and spending the whole trip with my family.

The Sioux Falls airport doesn’t have a whole lot of direct flights. You can usually get to Minneapolis, Omaha, and a handful of other Midwestern cities. Once in a while, you can get a direct flight somewhere south if you’re willing to fly the super-no-frills airline. That’s exactly what we did. The flight there was fine, but on the way home, our flight was set to depart at 6am. The night before we flew home, we decided that we wouldn’t go to sleep. We’d just wander around Las Vegas until we needed to be at the airport, which was 4am. Las Vegas never sleeps, right?
Party animals.
As a matter of fact, it does. By about midnight, we had exhausted all of our possibilities. Everything touristy was closed, and our only options were bars and casinos. Out of five, only two of us were over 21 (those two being Mom and Dad). We were running out of steam, and with nothing to do, we went to the airport several hours early. Time dragged – I hadn’t been so bored since I took that “physics of the universe” class in college. We sprawled out on chairs, making pathetic attempts to get some sleep. My brother and sister may have camped underneath the chairs. There was not much to see at the Las Vegas airport at 3am, so talking a walk was useless. The airport seemed to be a hangout for a number of shady-looking characters, so we didn’t want to stray too far anyway. We were hungry and sleep deprived, and absolutely everything was getting on everybody’s nerves. We finally boarded the airplane shortly after 6, and I’m sure I’ve never been so glad to be sitting on a plane than I was that morning.

The next disastrous trip we planned to take as a family was scheduled for my senior year of college. My parents decided to take a trip to honor each child’s senior year of high school. My senior year was Disney World, my sister Darrah’s was to be this trip to San Antonio. My mom had found some dirt-cheap tickets out of Watertown, South Dakota, which is nowhere near as large as Sioux Falls. Somehow, it has its own airport. We were planning to go over winter break, partly because, as a senior in college, I certainly couldn’t afford to miss any classes from my final semester. The trip was a little iffy to begin with: we were leaving the day after Christmas, and Santa had given me a sinus infection (which was totally not in my Christmas list). I was drugged with all sorts of Sudafed and Benadryl. Sinus infections are bad enough, but at thousands of feet up in the air, they can only get worse. I had some Dramamine on reserve in case I decided I needed to sleep through the whole day.

We sat at the teeny Watertown airport, waiting for updates on our flight. We got an update, all right: canceled. It was too foggy. Yes: too foggy. Since the Watertown airport is so small, they can’t afford all the new-fangled equipment that helps the pilots see where they’re going. So if the skies weren’t clear, there were no flights. I’m sure we all preferred not crashing in a giant fireball because the pilot couldn’t see through the fog, but we were displeased all the same. They had no flights going out the next day, and mayyyybe we could get on one the day after. We decided it wasn’t worth cutting our vacation nearly in half, so we opted for a refund. We trudged back out to the car, heavy hearted. Everyone was looking forward to putting away their sweaters and boots for a few days.

To make up for the ill-fated San Antonio trip, my family ended up going to Florida… without me. Like I said, senior in college: can’t take days off from school without risking your degree. So they called me from the beach a few times – they assured me that they weren’t having any fun without me, but I think they were lying.

The last family trip we took was this past February. We were heading to sunny Arizona to visit my sister there. Thankfully, the flights there and back were completely normal and uneventful. However, we can’t seem to have a trip without some sort of snag in the plans: I sort of put my car in the ditch the morning of the trip. I tell you, it’s always something.

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