Tire fire; (chiefly US, idiomatic) A disaster; a chaotic person, thing, or situation. ~ Wiktionary.
Before all you travel bloggers, all of you friends of travel bloggers, all of you who read travel blogs, all of you apostles of Rick Steves, all of you who watch Travel Channel 24/7, all of you who travel extensively, all of you who travel vicariously and all of you who possess a measure of common sense and caution pose the question you’ll be aching to ask after reading this post, let me give you the answers.
Yes, I was penny wise and pound foolish and next time I’ll buy travel insurance. I know I’m uprooting the fun of clucking at me for a conscious blunder that cost me a couple thousand dollars. And yep, I’m admitting to my financial malfeasance and in promising never to do it again I’m pooping the “I told you so” party before the first chips and dip have been set out, but to quote that annoying new fangled phrase, “Sorry, not sorry.”
Waldoboro, population 5,000 give or take, is classic, serene, vintage old coastal Maine. It’s a downtown strip of brick buildings. It’s the inescapable, at least in rural Maine, whitewashed Protestant wooden church fronted by a whitewashed steeple tucked in a surrounding green countryside. It’s a bucolic place dotted with farms, worn barns, aged homes and white picket fences all frequently and unabashedly splashed with the red, white and blue of American flags, banners and bunting. It’s a clearly proud patriotic area with a history that goes back to the 18th century. Located on the Medomack River, Waldoboro became a shipbuilding city where tall ships were constructed in the shipyard and then at high tide floated to the mouth of the river and out into Muscongus Bay.
Le Vatout is a bed and breakfast located just outside of downtown Waldoboro. Our innkeepers Dominika and Linda are gracious hosts running the inn housed in a former farmhouse that was built in the 1830’s. There’s a bit of charming funkiness to the place, particularly the large garden which provides a small green nook where I relaxed one evening with a mystery novel. The grounds are decorated with an assortment of colored lights and gewgaws, particularly the ubiquitous colorful lobster buoys that lobstermen use to mark the location of their traps. The buoys are a common decoration, seen hanging in gardens, from lamposts, on front porches and anywhere else that might seem appropriate to display this symbol of Maine’s crustacean bounty. It was here in this ideal of quiet Americana on a muggy early morning that our vacation turned into a tire fire.
The previous day we’d visited the Pemaquid Point lighthouse and then headed to Rockland for the Maine Lobster Festival. Maybe I’m over it with the food festivals, because after a brief stop we shrugged and decided to explore some of the villages to the north. I skipped the very reasonably priced whole lobster meal complete with roll and corn cob and lingered briefly in front of the deep fried junk food booth wondering if a battered and fried Oreo cookie would be as wickedly good as it sounded; I passed. I think my issue with food festivals is that they’re all basically the same. It’s only the product that’s being celebrated that distinguishes one from the others. Living in the Bay Area we’ve become jaded I guess with the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival.
We returned to Le Vatout by late afternoon and relaxed and planned the next day. I told Cora that my plan was to get up at sunrise and head back out to Pemaquid Point to take some photos of the classic lighthouse. Then, after breakfast, we would head up to Rockport or Searsport to poke around before heading back south to Camden in the late afternoon. At Camden we would board the two masted schooner Mary Day for a 4 day cruise. It was for me, the anticipated highlight of the three weeks.
Maine can be hot and humid in August and the mosquitos, if you aren’t lathered up with Off, will make a meal out of you. That’s why I found it odd when Cora asked me at 3 AM if I could close the window. “I’m feeling a chill.”
When I got back into bed I was alarmed to find that this wasn’t just, “I’m feeling a little chilly,” this was violent, uncontrolled shivering. I pulled the covers around her and when that didn’t work gave her some hot water and told her to put on a sweatshirt. As I hugged Cora to try and warm her up I reviewed the plans of the day. Pemaquid Point was not going to happen. We were two hours from sunrise and even if she suddenly seemed better I wasn’t going to leave her.
My concern turned to the 4 day cruise. What if she got really sick once we were underway? Was this something she could gut out? Would I even want her to gut it out? It didn’t take long for me to just address the heart of the matter, “Do you want to go home?”
“I’m sorry,” she answered. “I know you really wanted to go on the ship.”
“It’s okay. It’s always going to be there.”
By the time I heard Dominika puttering in the kitchen Cora was craving juice. Now she was sweating but feeling a little bit better. I went to the kitchen and explained to Dominika what was going on, asked for juice and told her that we were going to try to catch a flight home.
“I have gallons of juice, take all you want.”
Our original itinerary had us going to the White Mountains after the cruise, spending one night in Stowe, Vermont, four nights in Burlington, Vermont and then flying home from Burlington. That flight home was a week and a half into the future. This was not going to be a simple matter of going online and changing the flight. We were in a whole different ball game.
I checked online for the nearest airports and American Airlines flight schedules. Augusta seemed to be the closest but it doesn’t have an agency where I could return the rental car. Portland seemed about the same distance and it did have a rental return site. Portland it was.
The American ticketing agent on the phone was sympathetic once she understood our situation, genuinely wanted to help get us home but she wasn’t going to be pulling any strings or saving any charges. She immediately told me that since I’d purchased the tickets using miles I wouldn’t be able to simply change the flight with the used miles and she explained that I didn’t have enough miles left to get us home. I would have to buy new tickets outright.
“Fine. I need to get on a flight out of Portland, Maine. Today if possible.” I also asked if there was a first class seat available so Cora could be more comfortable.
If there’s any one maxim that became clearly evident during this trip it’s that buying an airline ticket is just like getting into a taxi cab. You’re merely starting the meter. The only difference is that the denominations are significantly higher with the airline meter.
When we left SFO I stepped up to the counter secure in the knowledge that our checked luggage was well under 50 pounds and wouldn’t incur a charge. Imagine my surprise when the agent said, “The first bag will be 40 dollars and the second will be 30 dollars.”
“You didn’t know we charge for checked luggage?”
“No,” I responded dryly, “I usually fly on your competitor, you know, the one that doesn’t charge for checked luggage?”
“Yes, I know, Southwest, but I’m sorry we charge for checked bags.”
“I’m sorry too,” I responded. “I might have to take a closer a look at your competitor’s route map.”
And so, as I tried to get us home out of Portland, Maine I found that American’s extra fee meter was working like a champ. My goal was to try and get my wife home as soon as possible and if I had to go back and recover fees later then I would.
After telling me that she couldn’t do anything for me with miles the agent searched for the soonest flight and told me she’d found one out of Portland that went through Phoenix and then to San Francisco. I was just about to take it when my call dropped. “Noooooooo!” Fortunately I’d given her my number and she called back.
“So,” she said, resuming the transaction, “You want to fly out of Providence, Rhode Island.”
“No, Portland, Maine to San Francisco.”
“That’s right. I can get you on a flight out of Portland through Phoenix today. It leaves in five hours.”
“Perfect. That’s plenty of time.”
And so, I purchased two tickets out of Portland, stopping at Phoenix and then on to SFO. The price for those seats was incredibly cheap but I figured that maybe she’d worked some magic or the airline just wanted to fill the plane.
It’s a beautiful rural drive from Waldoboro to Portland. We got to the airport and the rental return was quick and I got $400.00 back since it was an early return – but I did incur a $200.00 drop off fee. The hike to the American Airlines desk took us from one end of the airport to the other – literally. When we got to American we found that there were three agents and only one customer. Luck was changing. No line to sweat out. Check the bags, go through TSA and then relax.
“Where are we flying to today,” chirped the agent.
“San Francisco through Phoenix.”
“Where is your other stop?”
“There is none.”
“We don’t fly direct to Phoenix from here. Why don’t you give me your name and trip locator and I’ll try to help you.”
I found the information on my phone and handed it to her. She seemed puzzled and was struggling with what she was seeing – or not seeing. I was struggling with seeing her struggle and the bottom of my stomach was starting to free fall.
The agent turned to the Frontier Airlines agent next to her. “Can you recognize this departure airport code?”
The Frontier agent took a quick glance at my phone, and in a matter of fact tone said, “Yeah, that’s Portland, Oregon.”
Imagine everyone’s shock; mine, the Frontier agent, the AA agent and the AA agent’s supervisor. Cora’s reaction? To put it in airline terms, and in all her misery, she skipped the layover of shock and flew nonstop to disgust. “What a mistake. How stupid.”
By now we had three American Airlines agents in front of us, each trying to outdo the others in looking embarrassed.
Well, I’d already returned the rental car so driving to Oregon to make my flight was clearly off the agenda. That and the fact that Oregon was about 3000 miles away and only a few hundred miles from SFO. Since I was so lazy as to not want to drive to Oregon to fly to San Francisco I would have to get my ticket changed – again.
And so I told our story to the agent and her supervisor. Originally booked out of Vermont for the 14th of the month, had to change because Cora had gotten sick (turned out she was VERY sick), obviously got booked out of the wrong airport and we needed to get home ASAP.
And so the search for a flight to SFO from Portland, MAINE began. And with that, the American Airlines fee meter was cranked up – again; it’s probably the most efficient component of the entire organization.
The agent went to work and found us a flight that would leave in two hours, plenty of time. The only problem was that it was full. Well, maybe not, she explained. She told me that the airline will often hold back a few seats just in the event of a mistake like this. Really, I thought. Is this a regular occurence? Could it be that passengers who looked forward to landing in Paris, France sometimes found themselves getting off the plane in Paris, Texas? Hard to tell the difference – right? Paris, France/Paris, Texas. “Ahm, sorry podner, but we all don’t speak no French here in Texas. Can I get you some freedom fries though?”
Turned out that the flight was indeed full. The supervisor looking over the agent’s shoulder found a flight out of Boston that we could make. It was an hour and a half shuttle ride to Boston and then we’d have another hour or so to get to the gate. It didn’t take much deliberation to reject that idea. I didn’t want to risk getting caught in traffic in Boston, missing that flight and then rewarding the American shareholders by paying yet more fees. And I wasn’t going to subject Cora to another road trip, short as it might be.
Looking out the airport window I’d noticed that there was a Hilton Garden Inn within walking distance of the very desk we were standing at. “Is there anything tomorrow?”
She found a flight leaving at 5:20 the next morning, stopping in Philadelphia and then connecting to SFO. There would be an add on charge since I wasn’t flying from Oregon which was just up the coast from San Francisco and that was fine with me. The agent’s supervisor told me that there would be a $200.00 per ticket change fee. Before Cora could have an indignant nuclear meltdown I held up a hand. “Wait a minute, your agent books me out of the wrong side of the country and I have to pay for that? Let’s try this again.” The uncomfortable and deafening pause was broken by the agent who said she would make some calls. If there was a silver lining to this moment it was the fact that Cora’s fury had pushed away the misery of her illness.
The agent got on the phone and talked at length to someone with enough clout to push the keys that eliminated the change fee. While the ayatollah on the other end of the phone worked on getting the change fee reduced or eliminated the agent told me that there would be the checked bag fees. She must have glanced up to see Cora’s homicidal expression because without a word from me she asked the person on the phone to waive the luggage fee.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
After some dickering I settled on just under $200.00 dollars in lieu of the $470.00 that they could have charged. With tickets in hand we caught the hotel shuttle to the Garden Inn. After getting to our room I asked Cora how she was feeling.
“I’m going for a walk. Call me if you start feeling bad.”
When I got back the sheen of sweat on her skin in the air conditioned room told me that she wasn’t doing well. We survived the night, got to the airport in plenty of time to breeze through TSA (as best anyone could breeze through TSA) and took a miserable flight home. We literally had secured the last two seats on the plane. We weren’t seated together and we were in the very back of the plane and now I know why middle seats are considered to be only a slight upgrade from sitting in a dog crate full of poop.
Two hours out of SFO Cora started shivering again and one of the flight attendants walked her up to the front of the plane.
“Believe me it’s much warmer up there.”
I guess so. Wouldn’t want all the swells in the first class section to get goose bumps while sipping their Champagne.
They returned a short while later and the attendant, clearly concerned and sympathetic said, “She’s not doing very well. Do you want us to have medical staff waiting at the gate?” Knowing that Cora just wanted to get home to her bed I thanked her and declined the offer.
“We’re only about a half hour from home,” I lied.
The kind woman in the aisle seat next to me saw what was going on and swapped seats with Cora. I thanked the woman a few times over and the flight attendant gave her a couple bottles of wine in appreciation.
Upon return I ended up arguing with American about getting my original miles back that I’d purchased the Vermont to SFO tickets with. They wanted to give me a credit good until March 2020 or charge me a 175.00 fee. I told the AA Advantage agent the whole story and dug in my heels. I didn’t want a credit, I wanted my miles back without a service fee. What’s a service fee for? To pay for a couple of keystrokes on a computer?
I told the agent that American was going to come out ahead on this. They would fill the seats I was cancelling and at a higher price than they were worth when I’d booked the flight. The agent, named Nicki told me she was on my side and asked me to hold. Some time later she got back on the line.
“Well you missed the argument I had with the supervisor but you’re getting your miles back at no charge.”
In the end this dented my credit card and it taught me the lesson that a relatively few dollars in travel insurance can be money well spent. Despite the arguments and the original gaffe of getting booked out of Oregon instead of Maine, I’m overall satisfied with American. The agents (read, grunts) who I dealt with were each and every one sympathetic, clearly on our side and both angered and embarrassed over the incorrect booking and the corporate push back in getting fees waived. The flight attendants were kind and gracious and clearly worried about Cora’s condition. As of this writing I noticed that American has credited my card with $90.00. I’ve no idea what that’s for and I’m not going to ask; they might charge me an investigation fee.
Also as of this writing, a week and a half later (the actual day we were supposed to return home), Cora is still not 100 percent. She’s getting there but she was VERY sick. My plan for the spring is to take up where we left off in Waldoboro, Maine, get my photos of Pemaquid Point, take the missed cruise on the Schooner Mary Day and then explore the White Mountains in New Hampshire and tour rural Vermont. Oh yeah, and could one of you please text me and remind me to buy travel insurance?