Thursday, August 1, 2013

Flying with kids & dealing with a cancelled flight


Some travel days are a lot worse than others. The day we left Sweden (after a lovely month of visiting with friends and family) to head back home to Canada, might very well qualify as one of my worst travel experiences ever.

At the best of times, our travel between Skellefteå, in northern Sweden, to Vancouver, in Canada, takes about 20 hrs or so to complete with travel time and time waiting at or getting to airports.

Still, it was supposed to be an easy day: catch a late morning flight with SAS from Skellefteå to Stockholm, arrive in plenty of time before our Icelandair flight to Reykjavik and then continue on to Seattle and home. Except that didn't happen, because about two hours before that first flight, the one down to Stockholm, we received a text message that SAS had cancelled our flight. No explanation, and the number to call turned out not to be open for business on Saturdays.

I went numb. What could we do? If we didn't get to Stockholm in time to check in for our 2.20 pm flight, we would not get home at all that day. An initial online check of alternate flights was not encouraging. There were NO other flights from Skellefteå that day.


Words to live by when you're panicking.
There are two other towns with airports within 1 1/2 hours drive from Skellefteå - Umeå and Luleå. If we could find a flight from there, the day might be saved, but SAS had no flights from either town with seats available. At this point I was madly trying to figure out how I would deal with the situation: contact Icelandair to let them know, try to re-book, get down to Stockholm as soon as possible so we could hop on any planes available...

Then, my dad found a flight from Luleå on Norwegian airlines, leaving at 11.15 am. It was the only flight available that would get us to Stockholm in time. I could hardly believe it. And there were seats available! Now we just had to get there in time.

The equation was this:
  • Time: 8.30-ish am
  • Drive time to Luleå: 1 1/2 hours, making our estimated time of arrival by car, barring traffic problems: 10-10.15 am.
  • Flight departure: 11.15 am. 
  • Flight arrival in Stockholm: 12.35.
  • Flight out of Stockholm at 2.20 pm, though check-in closed at 1.20 pm.
All do-able, just, as long as we got on that flight from Luleå, and as long as that flight left on time.

Luckily I had packed our bags the night before, so me and the kids hustled ourselves into readiness immediately, while my mom and dad helped us along.

The place we were leaving: Burvik, Sweden.
The drive to Luleå was fast. That's all I'll say about that. I've never travelled that distance so fast ever before. Once at the airport we checked in and asked if they could check us through on Icelandair. Just as I suspected, they could not check us all the way through since Norwegian is not affiliated with Icelandair. Instead, in order to at least get us checked in for the next leg, I wanted to check in online. After realizing that Luleå Airport does NOT offer free wi-fi, I managed to get a connection, only to realize that I had no printer for boarding passes. Now, it is possible to get boarding passes sent to your phone, but seriously, at this point I felt like I wanted hard-copies of everything.

My mom went on a mission to find a printer, and came up with something even better: the guy at the information counter offered to let me log in on his computer and print whatever I needed. This process took a bit longer than I had counted on since we were flying to Seattle, and checking in for any US-destination when arriving on an international flight requires you to enter quite a bit of information. By the time I was finished, we had 15 minutes to go before the gate was closing for our flight to Stockholm. Pair that with a very long lineup, a single security checkpoint with a very zealous employee, and I felt like I was sweating bullets. It did not make for the most relaxed of goodbyes with my parents, and the kids were about to melt down from all the emotions and stress.

Once we were on the plane however, I could breathe. Especially once it took of, on time.

After that it was easy. Not a lot of time to spare in Stockholm, especially since we had to wait for our luggage, but it was alright. And once we were checked in with Icelandair I felt the tension just go out of me: now I knew we'd get home.
Crafts with barf-bags to pass the time on the plane.
Some things I learned from this experience:
1. Explain to the kids what is going on and what it means
When I heard our flight was cancelled, I freaked out. Not as in crying and wailing, but as in going into turbo-charged mode. After ordering the kids to get dressed and get their carryons organized, I realized that they thought we might never get home at all if we missed all our flights, so I explained to them that we would get home, though maybe not today.

Once we had our new flight, I explained that we now had a chance to make it home, and if we didn't, we would get on another flight and make it home anyway. It's easy to forget in the heat of the moment that some things that might seem obvious to an adult, might not be so obvious to a child.

2. Ask for help
That guy at the information desk at Luleå Airport who offered me the use of his computer and printer saved my sanity that morning. And I only got his help because my mom asked for assistance there. Not every person will be as helpful, but it is worthwhile to at least try.

3. Airports should offer free wi-fi
Seriously. An hour of free wi-fi for travellers should not be a big deal. Many airports offer it. Luleå Airport does not.

4. Bringing snacks is good
I had packed our carry-ons the previous day, including some snacks for the kids and me. That absolutely helped: we didn't have time to stop for snacks in the car, but I had something to offer the kids anyway. Same thing at the airport. Hungry kids are not patient travellers.

5. Having essential travel-documents in an easy-to-reach spot is great
I have a small travel pouch/purse that I keep credit cards, passports, tickets and boarding passes in, separate from my big carry-on backpack. Being able to easily check that I had our travel documents there helped reduce my anxiety level both in the car, at the airport, and on the various planes. I knew that as long as I had that pouch with me, we could get home, even if we somehow managed to forget or lose everything else.

6. Anything can happen
Most of the time, air travel is reliable, but that is not always the case. Things go wrong leading to cancellations and delays. What could I have done to prevent getting into such a tight spot? If we had headed down to Stockholm the day before our flights to Iceland, and then on to North America, would have helped, and that is what I might do next time. Apparently, it is not all that uncommon for SAS to cancel flights to and from northern Sweden, and I do not want to end up in the same predicament again. Ever.

Finally: a huge thank you to my parents who saved our travel-day and who also are the reason we enjoyed our stay in Sweden so much. Thank you, mom and dad!

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