Thursday, September 3, 1998
Today was the day! It had been two years nine months since a trip to Ireland had first been suggested. At that time I was sitting with my sister in a restaurant in Huaraz, Peru. She had been living there for the previous 11 months or so working as a teacher for the kids of several missionary families in the area. As we were eating our lunch I suggested we should plan another trip in a year or so. The coming summer (1996) was out because I was due to head to Alaska for a friends wedding. Plus the fact I had just used all of my vacation for my Peruvian trip. The following year, (1997) I had planned a two-week trip to Yellowstone. So we decided we would go the summer of '98. It was then that I uttered the words I would later come to regret. In an effort to convince my sister to go, I said, "If you go to Ireland with me I will buy your ticket." That was a $703 mistake. Actually I don't regret it that much.
In September of '97 I started researching my Irish trip. I went to the library and checked out several travel books. One that I particularly enjoyed was the Reader's Digest Illustrated Guide to Ireland (or something like that). Anyway, this book had (I believe) a page on nearly every city in Ireland. Along with pictures it also had a short history of the area and any sites of likely interest. These focused primarily on historical sites.
I had also ordered information from many of the tourist boards and companies. For a period from December '97 through January '98 I received some sort of info nearly everyday in the mail. After studying this plethora of information I made two decisions. First, the trip would take place in September rather than the summer. The reason for this was primarily financial. July and August are the height of the tourist season and this is reflected in the prices. By putting the trip off a month I figured that I could save a minimum of $400 per person and avoid the overwhelming summer crowds. Secondly, I decided that we would use one of the self-drive vacations through a tourist agency (more on this later).
For a brief period in December one of my sister's friends had thought about going. She soon backed out when she decided to return to school to work on her Doctorate in Accounting (yawn). But the biggest wrinkle to my plans came in March. I returned home to find a message on my answering machine. My sister's boyfriend decided to propose. My sister decided to accept. And the two of them decided they couldn't wait and planned on being married six weeks later at the end of April.
As the loving, supporting brother that I am, I immediately called to find out how this affected my trip to Ireland. They had already discussed the trip and my new brother-in-law would be tagging along (he could buy his own ticket). Now I needed to find someone else to go. I did not want to spend two weeks alone with a couple of newly-weds. I decided to invite our mother along. She loves to travel but hates to fly. I knew this would be an uphill battle. Each week as I called I would ask if she wanted to go. Originally she said "No". After much persuasion the "no" turned to a "maybe" and finally to "yes."
By now it was early April and time to buy our airline tickets. I went to my travel agent and told her what days we wanted to go. At this time we were still very flexible with our schedule. I wanted to fly out of Chicago. She looked and looked and finally came back and told me that she was unable to find any flights available. I knew this simply could not be true. It was still five months until September and there had to be something available.
So I got onto the internet and beginning checking flights. After only thirty minutes I had found four seats on Aer Lingus non-stop Chicago to Dublin (September 3 - 19) for $703 each. This was about $100 more than I had hoped to spend. After checking all the different options I found that this was the going rate. I took this information back to my Travel Agent. She expressed great surprise that I was able to find this on the internet. Using the information I found she was able to book the flights (but I didn't receive any commission).
Now, I live in Madison, Wisconsin. My sister and her husband live in Nashville, Tennessee. And my mother lives in Birmingham, Alabama. By flying out of Chicago it would require all of us to somehow make our way to Chicago. For me it was a simple matter. All I had to do was hop on the Van Galder Bus which would deliver me directly to O'Hare Airport. The question was how would the rest of my family make it to Chicago. For them to fly wouldn't have been a problem. However, we arrived back so late on Saturday, September 19 there would be no flights they could catch to take them back home. This would require a night's stay in Chicago. After looking at every option we decided that they would drive to Chicago.
They could have flown but this would have cost at least $500. Driving would cost at most $200. The difference of $300 was substantial. But then we decided to fly my mom from Birmingham to Nashville (just to make it more complicated).
So here is what finally happened. On Wednesday, September 2, my mom flew on Southwest Airlines from Birmingham, AL to Nashville, TN. This ticket cost $80 RT (the return flight being Sunday, Sept. 20 at 3:00). She left Birmingham at 5:00 p.m. and arrived in Nashville at 5:45 p.m.. My sister and her husband (Sallie and Jody) met her at the airport and they headed for Chicago. They stayed in a hotel just the other side of Indianapolis on Wednesday night. The next morning they drove on in to Chicago and went to Shedd's Aquarium.
On Thursday, I went to work until 10:00 a.m. I then drove home where a friend was going to come by and take me to the bus station. But that little red light was blinking on my answering machine. My sister called to ask if I could go to the bank and get her some cash to take on the trip. She had forgotten to do this. Now, we had been planning the trip for two years nine months and she had failed in all that time to make it to the bank to get some money.
So I hopped in my truck and flew off to the bank to get $600 cash for her to take. I then rushed back home, gathered all my stuff and had just enough time to relax a few minutes before my friend arrived. Throwing my bags into her car we were off to the bus station.
The cost of the bus from Madison to Chicago O'Hare is $18 each way. This trip was free for me. My boss had come by my desk the previous week with an offer the company was making the Y2K programmers. As a small thank-you for the work we had finished, the company was giving each of us a half-day off with pay and would purchase tickets for an event we would like to attend. Several of the staff opted for Brewer's tickets, others for tickets to Six Flags; I ask for a round-trip bus ticket to Chicago. My boss gave me a funny look, said ok, and that was how my bus tickets were free.
I hopped on the bus, pulled out Harry Turtledove's "The Guns of The South", and relaxed as someone else did the driving. Later in the trip I pulled out a sub I had purchased on my way home from work. It, along with a soda, made a great lunch. At 3:00 we pulled into the International Terminal at O'Hare. My flight to Ireland wasn't until 7:45 that night so I had plenty of time to wait.
I soon discovered I had actually arrived at the airport way too early. The Aer Lingus ticket counter didn't open until 4 p.m.. So I found me a seat and kicked back and waited. Here I was, all by myself, enjoying a nice quiet relaxing time at the airport, when suddenly a Pakistani Clan of no less than twenty individuals decide to play musical chairs with the other two seats on the couch. They all gathered in front of me and in a continual rotation each would sit down for a minute or so, stand, and another would take his or her place.
This, in and of itself, I could have lived with. However, I was also trying to keep an eye on the corridor to spot the rest of my family. I had chosen the particular seat I was in for that purpose. Now, I had to look between and over this continual shifting herd. At the same time I kept an eye on the line that was beginning to form at the Aer Lingus counter. When I had arrived I could have been the first in line. But I didn't care to stand there for an hour.
The line begin to grow, snaking back and forth between the post. I determined that when the line reached the end of the post that I would join the queue (a little eurolingo there). At 3:50 p.m. it reached the end so I join in. I still had nearly four hours until the flight left so I was fairly blasť over the whole thing. It was at this moment that my family arrived.
It seems they had been at the airport for nearly an hour trying to find the long-term parking. Ok, this was my fault. I told them to look for a sign that said "Long-Term Parking." They took me literally and couldn't fathom that "Economy Parking" was what I meant. So they had made two, or three, circuits around the airport until they found the economy parking lot. Amazingly they were then able to find the bus to take them to the tram that would take them to the International Terminal. I say "amazingly" because I later found they had managed to get lost leaving Nashville (the city in which they live) the day before.
The line moved rapidly and we soon found ourselves at the counter. The lady taking our tickets was a definite FIB (a Wisconsin term to describe people from Illinois - and it's not nice). We then stopped by a McDonalds so that they could grab a quick snack before we made our way to the gate.
Waiting for the plane I saw an excellent example of why you should arrive at the airport early. A KLM flight to Amsterdam was leaving from the gate next to ours. It being a 747, I had meandered over to look at the plane. On this single flight there were four passengers with problems. The first was a wife whose husband had wondered off somewhere in the airport. They had paged him repeatedly. I am unsure if he ever made it to the flight. And if he did, from the look on his wife's face, it was not going to be a very happy flight.
The second incident I am unsure what was happening. An African lady with several children was begging, then arguing, then screaming, then crying to be let on the flight. The gate attendants wouldn't let her board and eventually some suits from the airline arrived an escorted her away.
The third incident came after the plane's doors had been sealed. A man in a business suit ran into the boarding area asking to be allowed on the plane. The gate attendant told him the plane had left and he would be unable to board. He begin begging and pointing to the plane saying, "It's still at the gate. Please, please let me on." Eventually, someone who looked like part of the ground-crew came and he went away with him. The plane set there for 10 or 15 minutes more so it is possible that he made it on the plane somehow.
The final incident was a young man (early twenties) who slouched to the gate just as the plane pushed away. "Like, I need to be on that plane." "Sorry the plane has left the gate." "Bummer." Yes, it might be inconvenient but arriving at the airport early is a must.
I then sat down with my family and started talking to several elderly ladies across the aisle. The were on a guided tour (Trafalgar I think). We discussed our mutual travel plans until around 6:45 when Aer Lingus announced that they would begin boarding. I found this odd that they would start an hour early but we got on board. I am a large guy and my mom isn't tiny, so we soon found ourselves literally squeezed into two seats. The flight was packed. I do not believe there was an empty seat on the plane.
Aer Lingus then did something I had never seen another airline do. They left early. We were in the air by 7:30 p.m. and they announced we would be arriving in Dublin an hour early (at 8:15 a.m. instead of 9:15 a.m.). The only thing I can figure is that the flight was full and everyone had checked in and boarded so they were able to leave early.
Let me spend some time discussing this flight. The plane was clean. The flight attendants were reasonably nice. We arrived early. While there was nothing major to complain about neither was there anything done to deserve any compliments. What could Aer Lingus do to improve there flights and actually be customer friendly. Here are a few suggestions. First, more room in the seats. I have flown very often and the seats on the Aer Lingus plane have to be the smallest I have ever tried to squeeze in. I know that smaller seats mean more passengers which means more profit. It also means that the next time I fly to Ireland I will look at other airlines first.
Secondly, an overnight flight should be designed to allow the passengers to get some semblance of rest. It was nearly two hours into the flight before they begin serving dinner. They first came through offering drinks. And what they do serve is almost not worth drinking. Sure, they had every soft drink available; fruit juices, waters, coffees, teas, beer and mixed-drinks. But the portions are so small as to be laughable. If you ordered a Coke you actually got a full-can. The full-can however only held around four ounces. So one full swig of coke and it was gone. It was 45 minutes later before they came back through collecting trash. Finally, they started serving dinner.
I will say that the food was good. It was some sort of chicken and vegetables served with various sides. However, once I had finished it must have been another hour and a half before they came through collecting trays. This meant that I had to sit there with the dinner tray stuck in my lap with no hope of nodding off.
Finally, dinner was served. The trays were collected. The flight was half over but I could still get three hours of sleep. I had just nodded off when a flight attendant shouted into my aisle, "DUTY FREE!" "Uh, What,...?" "DUTY FREE!" It was at this time that they came through hawking their wares from a push cart like some street vendor. "NO! Thank You!" I replied as I adjusted my pillow to once again try to achieve some comfortable position where I might gain some rest.
Then, near the end of the flight with less than an hour to touchdown, the flight attendants nearly flew through the cabin dealing out "breakfast" like cards from a deck. "Breakfast" turned out to be sandwiches which had obviously been left over from some other flight. So, my suggestion to Aer Lingus is to serve dinner as quickly as possible, and then leave the passengers alone until time to land.
Back to the flight. As we reached the end of the runway and the plane accelerated to lift-off my mother was very frightened. She had only flown a few times in the past. Through the course of the flight every bump or turn of the plane elicited the question, "Is that normal?" On the return flight two weeks later she was much more relaxed. We had hid the fact from her about the Air Swiss flight that had crashed the previous night on the same course that we were on. If she had known about that we would have never got her on the plane.
The plane was packed. In fact, due to several babies riding on parent's laps there were probably more people than seats. We had drinks, dinner, a couple of movies, a quick breakfast, and landed. The drinks deserve a comment. The itty-bitty Coke cans were so cute I grabbed one and kept it as a souvenir. I also got a Jameson Whiskey and a small bottle of wine for souvenirs. On this flight beer and mixed-drinks were free.
The Sun rose around 6:40 Irish time. By that time we were beginning to descend some as we came in over Ireland. I was able to look down and see the sea. I actually saw a boat out on the ocean. As we crossed over Ireland I was unable to see any land due to the immense cloud cover. In fact we later learned that it was the remnants of the latest hurricane that had hit the United States. Once it had made its way along the east coast of the USA, the winds had blown it back across the ocean.
As we started to descend into Dublin Airport we finally emerged out of the clouds. My first glimpse of Ireland. Green! And very few roads. My mom made this comment several times. Then as we were able to make out vehicles on the roads that we could see, several people (Americans) made the comment, "They're driving on the wrong side!"
The landing was smooth. We taxied out to the middle of a large patch of pavement, stopped, and the doors were opened.