I’ve been wanting for a while now to stop surmising what it would be like to start a travel blog and actually write. The problem is that there are so many travel bloggers out there. Everyone has their own niche. I needed something to write that was different from all the other blogs and yet distinctively me. Then I went to the Middle East. The experience was amazing. I saw friends who I hadn’t seen for a long time, explored a part of the world I had never visited, and crossed a few new countries off my ever-growing list. However, the aspect of the trip that inspired me to finally sit down and write was the voyage itself.
I should start by explaining that I work for an airline in the United States. This does not make me a travel expert, but it does make my perspective on airlines, airports, airplanes, and travel in general slightly more deranged than the normal pajamas in public, what do you mean I can’t take my gallon jug of shampoo through security, packing carry-on bags so large they can barely fit them in the car but will still argue with the gate agent that they will fit in the overhead bin because they “fit the last time” and they allegedly “travel all the time” because once in the last two years they took a weekend trip to Las Vegas tourist public. The main difference between me and those poor ticket-buying saps is that I fly for free. I’ll give you a minute. Sip some water. Throw some shoes if you need to. Not the Manolo Blahniks, the ones you got on sale at Target. Once you’ve calmed yourself enough to continue reading, please sit back down.
Flying for free is as great as it sounds. In fact, it’s the single greatest thing ever. I have worked for 2 different airlines in the last 5 years, with a brief, traumatic, 10-month period where I decided I would rather make more money at a different job. I promptly quit when I learned that I would have to fund my own travel expenses, thus negating the raise I was getting to work there. And also, how could I survive not playing with airplanes every day? I don’t have an attention span long enough for office work. But I digress.
My plan was to visit some friends in Qatar, hop to Greece for a few days, then head back home to San Diego. I had procured passes on United and Swiss Air with back-up options on Lufthansa, Emirates, and Delta. Oh yeah, I fly for free, but…BUT…it’s standby. So traveling for me is a little like those maze games I used to play as a kid where you try to make one continuous line to get around the obstacles and out of the circle. For some, that might be extremely frustrating. However, once you get used to the game, it’s not so bad. I actually find it rather fun. It helps to make a drinking game out of any flights you get bumped from.
For this particular trip, my flights looked good. From San Diego, I was going to take Southwest (the greatest airline in the history of the world) to Washington-Dulles via Chicago. I would claim my bag at baggage claim, re-check it at the United ticket counter, and then jump on a wide-open flight from Dulles-Dubai-Doha. It was a through flight, so I wouldn’t even have to change planes in Dubai. There were 80 open seats. Nothing could stop me. I made it to Dulles 30 minutes early thanks to Southwest rocking their on-time departures. I picked up my bag, checked it to Doha at the United counter, confirmed with the Customer Service Agent that there were still plenty of open seats all the way through, and headed up to the gate. I had high hopes of getting upgraded to Business or First since the flight was so empty, but the screens at the gate dashed my hopes. Approximately 40 people were on the waiting list for an upgrade. No problem, the gate agent cleared me into a window seat in my own row in Economy Plus. Good enough for me. I could lay down and sleep the whole 13-hour flight. We boarded the beautiful 777-300. I texted my goodbyes to everyone for the next two weeks, not knowing where or when I would have access to wifi while there, and turned my phone off. I improved my standby karma (it’s a real thing) by giving my row of 3 to a pilot commuting to work in Dubai and moved to an open row of 2. I could still sleep, and since he was much taller than I am, so could he. The flight attendants expressed their appreciation by offering me free drinks for the entire flight. Totally worth losing the extra 17 inches of seat to stretch out (See? I was serious about the karma.). We watched the security briefing video, returned our seat backs and tray tables to their full upright and locked position, and were ready to go.
Except we didn’t go. We sat at the gate. 20 minutes passed. We were supposed to have been taxiing out to the runway and cleared for takeoff already. Finally, one of the pilots came on the PA and informed us that the ramp agents had damaged a cargo bin seals while loading the bags. They would have to replace it. “It shouldn’t be more than 2, 2 ½ hours, so we’re going to go ahead and ask everyone to deplane.” Oh well. It happens. I grabbed my purse and the pilot, who by his own admission owed me a drink, and headed to the wine bar. Oh yes. The wine bar. In the Dulles airport, there sits one of the better wine bars I have been to in not only any airport but in several major cities around the world. Wine flights, a great wine list, knowledgable bartenders, and prices (for the US) that didn’t make you want to weep openly. We sipped and swirled our way through a Spanish wine flight and headed back to the gate to check the progress of the mechanics. We got there just in time for the annoucement that they were going to swap us to another 777 that was coming in from London in 45 minutes. The crowd was surprisingly mellow. It consisted of about 60% Arab families and businessmen, 30% military, and 10% hodge-podge (myself included). We meandered over to our new gate and asked the agents a realistic departure time. They guessed at least another 2 hours. Back to the wine bar. Insomnia or not, I would be able to sleep now! 4 hours after our scheduled departure time, we boarded again in Dulles. As I was boarding, I asked the kindly United chaps if the Dubai-Doha leg was still going to go since we were so late. They assured me that it was as it was their only flight on that route for the day. Great. I messaged my friends in Qatar with the new arrival time (At this point, our theatre tickets for the night were ruined…well, at least for me. They still went.), and was on my way.
I slept the entire flight, awakened only on final descent in time to groggily open my window shade and watch the city lights as we were enveloped into them. We pulled into the gate, and a voice came over the PA first in Arabic then in English instructing all the Doha passengers to take their carry-on luggage and deplane. The voice did not tell us that the Dubai-Doha flight had been cancelled, but I assumed as much. I exited the plane in search of any United employee to ask where I could retrieve my bag, since it had been checked all the way to Doha. There were none. United has one flight a day, and they contract their ground personnel out. I followed the disgruntled Doha crowd to the transfers desk. An airport employee instructed us that everyone had been re-routed onto Emirates and Qatar Airways. Well, everyone except me because I was a non-revenue standby. I tried to explain to the Dubai airport employee that I was a standby passenger and needed my bag back to try for a different flight. After explaining several times that United would not be paying for me to fly on another airline since I was not paying them for the original flight, he told with way more confidence than I thought plausible that my bag would be at baggage claim. I thanked him and headed downstairs. It was still early in the trip, so I still had some faith in humanity, and part of me might have believed that my bag would actually be at baggage claim. It was not. Nor was there a single person associated with United Airlines. Thankfully, the airport had free wifi so I was able to message my friends to tell them that I would not be arriving in Doha anytime soon.
I found a generic airport baggage service office near the carousels and pleaded with a very pleasant lady who had an extremely difficult time understanding what I meant by “standby”. Eventually, she was able to reach a United representative on the phone, and they assured me that they had located my bag and it would be dropped at the carousel in “15-30 minutes”. I messaged my friends to update them. They did not hesitate to assure me that I would not see my bag for at least an hour. Still, I had high hopes. 2 hours later, the lady from the Dubai airport brought me my bag. I had missed the first block of Emirates and Qatar flights and had 45 minutes to catch the last Emirates flight of the night…in another terminal. I ran. I ran in suede boots with a 4 ½ inch heel and a dress that I had been wearing for the last 27 hours. I reached the Emirates Staff Check-in desk 30 minutes before the flight was scheduled to depart. I panted the situation to the man behind the desk. He told me that they close their flights 65 minutes before departure, and I would not be getting on this one.
The next flight left at 2:30am, almost 5 hours away, but he could not put me on the standby list until I changed clothes. I needed to be wearing a floor-length dress and cover my shoulders. Now, I was obviously aware that I was going to a Muslim country, but my friends had assured me that I did not need to wear an abiya in public. I had also not planned on flying Emirates when I left, so I had not researched their dress code for non-revenue travelers. I had assumed that it was similar to all the other world carriers. Typically, you dress up. I was dressed up. A lot of airlines are more lax with their dress codes now, but if you want even the slightest chance of being upgraded to Business class, you need to look as though you belong in Business class. If you know me, you know that I dress that way at all times anyway because I’m a pretentious ass, but in particular I make sure that I look professional when I’m flying. If the plane crashes, I want people to be looking at the pictures thinking “Oh, the tragedy…wait…are those Christian Louboutins?” I want to look good as mangled wreckage. Where was I? Oh yes, breaking the dress code and offending the straight-laced Emirates guys. I apologized profusely. I may have even conjured up some college acting class tears. I explained what had happened with United, and I pulled everything out of my suitcase and had the now extremely amused Emirates guys pick out an acceptable outfit for me to wear on their plane. I had no dresses long enough. Thankfully, I had at the last minute thrown the only pair of jeans I own into the bag. Those, they informed me, would work. Usually, jeans are on the “no go” list for any airline dress code. For Emirates, they were the only thing I could wear out of my entire suitcase. I wrapped a shawl over my shoulders, and they gave me a boarding pass. Then, since we were now best friends, they apologized to ME for making me change. They wanted to assure them that they were not offended by what I was wearing. They just didn’t want to get in trouble by sending me to the gate looking like an American hussy. Ok, they didn’t say hussy. I made sure to thank them with one foot already halfway down the terminal before they changed their minds. I had my seat. And 4 hours left to wait.
Fortunately, the Dubai airport is actually a small city. There are hotels, showers you can rent by the hour, a shopping mall, restaurants, bars, clubs, and I’m pretty sure a couple of subdivisions. Everything might be bigger in Texas, but it’s brighter in Dubai. There are rainbow chandeliers and murals everywhere you turn. I had to stop at Pinkberry for some Pomegranate yogurt to carry around just so I could feel like I belonged. 4 hours of wandering around in the life-sized Candyland and taking pictures of people passed out in their chairs (it was now 2:00am) later, I got on my flight to Doha.
The boarding process in Dubai can only be properly understood if you have witnessed the running of the bulls in Spain. I had not, and I was nearly trampled. A lady with a stroller literally tried to run me over. I would have thrown down with her, but I was flying for free, and I didn’t want to ruin my boots. The poor gate agents attempted to board in the zones on our boarding passes, but the entire gate area stampeded toward them, shoving each other out of the way and clawing their way forward in the line. I think some of them actually thought that if they weren’t the first ones on the plane that it was going to leave them behind. When we finally reached the plane, the concept of seat assignments was completely lost on at least half of the passengers. Some sat at random and then responded to the news that they were in someone else’s seat with an irritated scoff and glare. Some wandered, wide-eyed, through the aisles holding the stub with their seat assignment as if it possessed magical powers. I directed a few of them to their seats, but I was exhausted and done with the whole flying thing for a while, so I left it up to the flight attendants to decipher. They did a marvelous job of kicking people out of the wrong seats and directing others to the right ones. It was a completely full flight, and it miraculously managed to leave close to on time.
My seatmates were a party of 3, one Arab man with 2 women fully covered in abiyas. The man was sitting in my aisle seat when I boarded (He was one of the most successful at pushing people out of the way to board first. For his effort, he was in a middle seat toward the back.). He did not speak English, nor do I speak any Arabic. I pointed to the sign over the seat and showed him my boarding pass. He glowered at me. I think he thought that he was going to be able to intimidate me into sitting somewhere else, but I did not even wait for him to move and started stowing my carry-on underneath the seat where he was sitting. So he slid over into his correct seat. I imagine his conversation with the women traveling with him was not too complimentary toward me. But I didn’t care. I was an hour away from my friends.
Emirates did not skimp on their service. They were passing out water as soon as we were coming to the end of the boarding process. They did beverage, meal, and coffee services on a full A-330 during a one-hour flight, all while smiling and engaging every single passenger. I was impressed. The bully next to me was not. During the initial water service, he had tried to take 3 waters from the flight attendant serving our section. The FA was very nice and gave him 2. Their conversation was in Arabic, so I’m not entirely sure what was said, but from their body language, I gathered that he told the bully that he needed to serve the rest of our section and would return with another water if he had one left when he was finished. My seatmate, who I will from now on refer to as Stanley Kowalski, argued with him. Since I couldn’t understand exactly what he was saying, I kept picturing him standing outside in the rain irrationally screaming “Stellllaaaaaaa!!!” The FA never raised his voice or stopped smiling, but he continued to walk up the aisle passing out water. Stanley became irate. He demanded that the next FA who walked by call the purser. We were ready to taxi, so the purser came over once we were in flight. Until then, Stanley loudly complained about how rude the FA had been. My brilliant plan to get a nap in during the flight was a total failure. Stanley asked for a complaint form and filed a written complaint with the purser during the flight. Every few seconds, he would seek approval from the 2 Stellas sitting next to him, and they would egg him on. It was loud and disgusting, and I didn’t know how to argue with him since the entire conversation was in Arabic. Instead, I settled for “accidentally” elbowing and kicking him about 14 times during the short flight. As we were deplaning, I took the purser, who spoke limited English, aside and explained what had actually happened and that the FA had done nothing wrong. “I don’t know how to say this in Arabic, but that guy was a boorish asshole”, I told him. The purser agreed. He told me that the “written complaint” had been filed in the trash can. I thanked him, and stepped off the plane. I had made it to Doha. My trip had begun.