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When a return flight is not a ticket to ride

May 30th, 2011. Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, Netherlands. My wife Maureen and I arrive at 10:45 a.m. for our 1:20 flight home to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. What a wonderful five weeks we had shared: Croatia with our son Mike; Canterbury, England where he attends law school at Kent University; Berlin and Munich in Germany; Prague, Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria; Bern, Switzerland; Nice, France; and finally Amsterdam.

Recently retired, Maureen and I had looked forward to this dream trip for months. It did not disappoint. The cities and countries rolled by with a vitality and freshness that made each and every day of the journey an experience of great anticipation within itself. We marveled at the seascapes of Dubrovnik, lost track of time in galleries and museums, the Pergamon of Berlin, the Lobkowitz of Prague and Anne Frank House in Amsterdam being three of the most memorable. We strolled the labyrinthine hallways of castles such as Schonbrunn in Vienna and Prague Castle of eponymous fame. We savored glasses of wine in various sidewalk cafes as the inhabitants of each destination strolled by intermingled with conga-type lines of tourists being led by a flag-brandishing guide. We connected each of these cities with train travel that allowed us to relax while enjoying the unfolding scenes of golden canola crops and picturesque villages.

So where did the trip ‘go off the rails’, so to speak? Right at the very end, on May 30th, Schiphol Airport..

Some background information. I serve as a volunteer on the Regional Council of International Baccaulareate, a non-profit educational enterprise that offers high quality educational programs world-wide. As a retired educator, my selection to the Council is something that I greatly value. Unfortunately, after booking our tickets with KLM, the Council’s meetings were announced. Sure enough, they conflicted with our scheduled departure, April 27th to be precise. I felt it important to attend the meetings in Bethesda, Maryland, but struggled with the extra costs that I would incur for the privilege of doing so – approximately $600.00 for a one-way journey to Amsterdam from Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C. to meet my wife and son. Maureen would use her non-refundable ticket in entirety; I planned to use only the return portion.

Or so I thought. Maureen apprised the airline staff in Vancouver upon check-in — in response to their query where her no-show husband was — that I would not be on the outbound leg of the trip but would be returning with her on the return portion. No indication of a problem with that plan! Smiles all the around and have a good trip, Mrs. Little.

However, when it came time to check in at Schiphol, we incurred the strangest electronic response. Maureen’s ticket processed without a hitch. We scanned her passport into the electronic kiosk, one of three options presented. Attempts to scan my passport kept giving us a cryptic response that Maureen Little was already booked. Strange, we thought. They say that couples start to look alike over time, but no one on the planet will ever mistake Maureen for me. She would be deeply offended if they did.

Time to go to the airline’s ticket counter for assistance. Taking our place in the queue, we waited patiently until A600 showed on the screen. I fully expected that we would be through in short order, enjoy a light breakfast, purchase a novel for the flight ahead of us and be ready to go, problem solved.

I could not have been more wrong. The ticket-counter employee was business-serious.

“You do not have a ticket. You invalidated it.” For the briefest of instants, I actually thought she must be confusing me with someone else.

“There must be a mistake. “ I showed her our e-mail with confirmation number, my name on it, and even my picture I.D. just in case she thought I was someone trying to pass himself off as Gary Little.

“I am sorry. If you do not use the outbound part of the ticket you no longer have one. It is void.”

I was stunned. The enormity of what she was saying finally sunk in.

“Help me understand the logic of this,” I pleaded, not sure what else to say.

“Well,” she said, “it would not be fair to those who bought one-way tickets.”

“That makes no sense at all to me.” I pleaded with her, futilely. What seemed so self-evident to her was totally lost on me. “If I buy a ticket – which I have, there is no disputing that – in good faith to a sporting event, or a concert or a play or anything else I can think of and choose to use only the last half or enter during an intermission I am not denied entry. I am simply told to wait until there is an appropriate break. Even if someone has moved into my seat, he is told to vacate it and I take over as the rightful owner. Why is it that you don’t allow the same?”

“For airlines round-trip tickets are cheaper than one-way tickets so it would not be fair.”

I realized that we were going nowhere so I signaled Maureen over from where she performed sentry duty with our suitcases.

She was disbelieving when I told her what was going on. She was especially incredulous when the employee told us that for me to get back to Vancouver it was going to cost an additional 2000 Euros, approximately $2800 Canadian. Recovering from this piece of ‘news’, I mentioned that this was equal to the airfares and much of the other travel that we had purchased for our entire trip. Put another way, my ‘volunteering’ for I.B. had now escalated to the neighbourhood of $3400 Canadian.

To add insult to injury I could not even get a seat on the flight that I had paid for, the flight back home with my wife. This airline had wasted no time, apparently, in selling it. Two for one. Not a bad business model if you are able to charge twice for the same product.

“We can’t afford that,” Maureen said matter-of-factly. “There’s just no way.” She was right. I asked the staff-member if there was not a cheaper alternative. To her credit and my dismay [I could still not believe that this was happening], she pored over option after option, her fingers flying across the keyboard with a kind of poetic rhythm, not a word exchanged. In fact, she spent so much time trying to assist us that even her colleagues on more than one occasion came by to speak in Dutch to her. Not understanding the language, I cannot tell you whether she was being asked to pick up the pace, might like a coffee, or was working into her break and being reminded of that fact. She spent the better part of an hour with us and I am grudgingly grateful to her for doing so

We arrived at the point that everyone who has ever travelled reaches. We had to make a decision. Maureen had to get moving or she would miss her flight. I needed to decide if I was going to say good-bye to my wife and make my way back to Amsterdam, find a hotel, find a wireless connection, and begin the agonizing process of trying to find affordable transport home – with absolutely no assurances that I would. Or I could accept what the airline was prepared to offer.

I chose the latter, a flight to Minneapolis on Delta Airlines, followed by another flight to Seattle. I still had no idea how I was going to get from Seattle to Vancouver but I really didn’t care.

“Just get me out of here,” I thought.

Two things stand out about this ‘accommodation’, made even more preposterous by the fact that I still held in my hand the ticket that I had purchased. One, the airline booked my new passage to Seattle on a round-trip ticket basis in order to save me money. They did this knowing that I would not use the return portion – and, like my earlier ticket, would be able to sell the seat again if there was sufficient demand. So much for the exalted ‘principle of fairness’ that was at play. Two, I was now officially out-of-pocket an additional $1250.00 Canadian and had only made it within 190 kilometers of my home, what I now jokingly refer to as the distance between this airline and customer appreciation.

By the time I finished at the airport counter, I had to dash off to my gate or risk missing my new flight. In the hurly-burly of the moment and still reeling from the experience, I neglected to drop my suitcase at the baggage drop counter, a mistake I only realized when I reached Gate E5. The lineup was enormous and I realized instantly that if I had to retrace my steps, find the correct drop line for my suitcase, and get back to Gate E5, I was going to be out of pocket another $1250. I would never be able to do all of this and get boarded on time.

I bypassed the line, asked for the supervisor on duty, and was referred to a gentleman who was a godsend. Whether it was the look of utter fatigue on my face, the pain in my voice or my disheveled appearance I cannot say for sure, but when I told him what had happened he immediately stepped in, routed me through the business line so that my suitcase could be scanned by security staff at the gate, and then ensured me that a ground attendant would get both it, and me, onto the scheduled flight. I remain forever grateful to him and his colleague who was quick to separate himself from what had occurred, “We don’t work for the airlines; we work for the airport!”

We boarded. I settled into seat 35F, a man to my right who was travelling to the United States on a Norwegian passport and spoke no English, a woman to my left who was Dutch but had lived in the U.S. for many years. I regaled her with my tale of woe before we had even backed out of the gate. She was over-the-top empathetic, comforting me with food as well as genuine sincerity and reminding me that it would not be long before drinks arrived. Apparently it looked like I needed at least one.

“A Heineken will probably go down pretty nicely,” she mused. “I am sure that two will go down even better.” We both laughed.

The announcement to buckle up and place our seats in the upright position soon intruded into our conversation. I pushed on the button to reposition my seat. Nothing doing. It remained fully reclined. I reached back with one arm and manually pulled the seat forward. Seconds later the seat found its way back to the reclining position.

At this point the man behind me made a generous point of telling me that my seat was to be in the upright position. It was kind of like having your father sitting behind you. This was nearly the straw that did it for me. My Dutch neighbor noticed my increasingly red pallor, turned to the man and said, “The seat is broken. I don’t think you want to push this issue.” Thankfully, that was the last I heard from him.

From there things went smoothly, thanks to the Delta staff and great flight-mates. We arrived early in Minneapolis and I cleared customs easily, something I was certain would be problematic given the fact that I said I was going home to Vancouver on my Canadian passport but only possessed a ticket as far as Seattle. The customs agent accepted my short version of the events and even smiled, amused by my recounting of one or two of the highlights. He wished me good luck and stamped my passport.

I located a pay phone [yes, in the rush of events at Schiphol we left our cell phone in Maureen’s purse] and immediately phoned ahead to Vancouver. My brother-in-law, always a rock at times like this, agreed to scour the Internet for flights from Seattle to Vancouver, car rentals, etc. I told him I would phone again upon arrival in Seattle.

Then, just before I was to board the plane in Minneapolis, I was able to connect with our son Mike who was now back in Vancouver for the summer and had just arrived home from his own jet-lagged first day of work. He was able to secure passage for me on a shuttle bus that left the Seattle airport at 9:00 p.m. and would arrive in downtown Vancouver between 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. I was thrilled at this news, even though the total time from Amsterdam to Vancouver meant approximately 25 hours of travel time versus the eleven or twelve that my wife was experiencing in what I increasingly imagined to be unbridled bliss. Envy. Not something that was enhancing my mental state at this point.

Once again, Delta’s flight went without a hitch. Wonderful seat-mates, an edible sandwich that I had purchased at the Minneapolis airport, pleasant service and a new magazine to read. I settled in.

Three-plus hours later we touched down in Seattle. It felt like I was home, although I now faced a four to five hour bus ride. No problem. After everything that had transpired to this point, the easy part lay straight ahead.

There were a couple of things that instantly struck me as I boarded the bus. First off, there were very few passengers. I wondered how the company could make money if this was a typical Monday evening. Secondly, I realized that I was about thirty years older than the next oldest passenger. They carried backpacks; I carried a bulging suitcase that screamed “elderly tourist”. They carried travel bags; I carried a lap-top case strung rakishly over my shoulder. Try as I might to look like I belonged with that group, I realized I looked like Grandpa Moses.

We stopped in downtown Seattle and picked up more passengers, including one young man I will call HomeBoy, ‘Homie’ for short.

He reeked of pot. Jeans strung low to the bottom of his butt, oversized red ball cap askance at a menacing 45 degree angle. Right to the back of the bus he went. We continued on our way, lights turned low so that we might enjoy some sleep.

Whack! A knock to the back of my head. I ignored it. Someone trying to get comfortable, I thought. Whack! A second knock to the back of my head. Smell of marijuana. I reeled around and glared at none other than Homie. It was like being back in seat 35F. He muttered something indecipherable but threatening in tone and returned to his seat in the back of the bus. My mind raced to the macabre incident near Winnipeg when a crazed individual decapitated a slumbering passenger. I chose to keep one eye open at all times. No sleep for me.

We finally made the Canadian border. Everyone had to disembark, passports and declaration slips at the ready, luggage in hand. Again, not a hitch. That is, not a hitch until Homie, the last of our group to approach the customs agents, arrived for questioning.

Suddenly, we were directed into a nearby room. Another agent appeared seemingly from nowhere.

“Whose is this?” he challenged. He held up a pharmaceutical-like vial larger than anything prescription bottle I had ever seen. His eyes zeroed in on us.

“It’s from someone on this bus. We clean the garbage cans before buses arrive; we know it was from one of you. No one goes anywhere until we find out whose it is.”

Great, I thought. More time to spend on this trip.

He approached a young woman, a musician with whom I had enjoyed an earlier conversation, thrust his face right into hers and asked her if she smoked pot.

“No,” she said, visibly taken aback by the insinuation.

Then, without my even noticing, Homie was extricated from our midst and brought to another area for questioning. The voices of the customs agents grew loud, accusatory.

The next thing I knew we were traipsing back onto the bus minus one passenger. Homie was getting personal transport elsewhere — probably by paddy wagon and probably in the company of Canada’s finest.

Back on the bus, I closed my eyes for the first time in over a day. Diana Krall flowed soothingly from my I-Pod and I basked in the fact that I would soon be home.

Downtown Vancouver. Successfully flagging a taxi the moment we disembarked from the bus, I was on the home stretch, the last leg of an amazing journey. 1:45 a.m., which corrected for time was exactly 25 hours and 45 minutes after starting the day in Amsterdam. I opened the front door. Never has any place looked so good even though it was dead quiet at this time of the morning.

I poured myself a small single-malt Scotch and shared a mere portion of the story with Maureen, whom I had awakened as I banged around in the kitchen directly below. Saying good-night to her, I returned to the main floor too energized to sleep. I scanned the dining room table strewn with five weeks’ worth of mail.

Two envelopes caught my eye. Canada Revenue Agency. Finally, some good news, our tax refunds. There was Maureen’s refund as expected. I noticed the heft in the envelope addressed to me and thought, “Oh no, don’t tell me on top of everything else today I am being audited.”

I tentatively opened it. There was good news and bad news. The good news was I was not being audited. The bad news was I was not getting a refund as expected but apparently owed the government $13,000.00. $13,000.00 and change! Could the day get worse? I was not about to wait for the answer. Off to bed I went.

Ironies abound. The first is that two days after returning to Vancouver I received a cordial e-mail from the airline detailing their sincerest hope that I had enjoyed a good trip home. I was starting to get the impression that someone in their corporate hierarchy was actually getting his kicks by taunting me at this point. The second is the aforementioned fact that the airline’s employee chose to book me on a return flight [I thank her for doing so, mind you, since it saved me considerable expense and even more hassle] knowing that I would not be returning to Amsterdam on the return leg. Thirdly, if none of this had ever happened I would not have met so many supportive and wonderful fellow travelers who went out of their way to wish me luck and who helped in myriad small ways. What a day of contrasts.

So when is a ticket not a ticket? When you purchase a round-trip ticket and believe that you are within your rights as a traveler to use the return portion. I have done this before, as recently as September 2010. Not this time, not on this airline.

Read the fine print, not just the Ticket Conditions that you get on your e-mail. Pore over the multi-page contract as if your trip depended on it. It just might.

Caveat emptor. And pleasant travels, coming and going.

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