from Sandy Needham

Monday, February 21, 2011

Travel Peaks and Valleys Dispatch

Usually when Newton and I travel, he is on business and my ticket is free via airline miles and American Express points. I usually fly Continental and its partners on Star Alliance. This allows me to make a reservation that is held for three days while American Express points are transferred and reservation adjustments are made.

On our recent 3-1/2 week trip, Newton had an elaborate ticket from Natal to São Paulo to New York to Tokyo to San Francisco to Houston and back to São Paulo and Natal. My free ticket with the two allotted layovers got me from Natal to New York and from Tulsa back to Natal, with 6 days layover in São Paulo. My other planned USA stops in-between were purchased tickets.

Newton and I arrived at the airport a little late at midday and rushed over to check in. The agent showed no reservation for me. Newton whipped out his laptop and earphones and called Continental on Skype. He discovered that the reservation had been cancelled back in December because no miles were ever transferred from American Express. He had forgotten about this last step, and I had never confirmed that he had done it. He then tried to arrange a new reservation for me while I raced to the TAM airlines counter to see if I could get on Newton’s flight to São Paulo. There was some talk about getting on the waiting list, which meant joining a crowd of people not in line around an agent who continually left her post. With ten minutes left before Newton’s flight and a dropped call to Continental, he just had to go through security and catch his plane. I found out that my name on the waiting list was too far down for any hope on any other TAM flight to SP that day, so I raced to the GOL Airlines counter to buy a ticket. All they had left was a flight at 1:30 AM, which I grabbed for the last minute price of US$500. What this 3-1/2 hour flight meant was that there was a chance I could get the TAM day flight the next morning from São Paulo to NY.

You see, Newton surprised me on Christmas morning with tickets to the New York City Ballet over our upcoming NY stay. I had been completely moved that he would think of this perfect gift for me! I had selected that next evening since one of my favorite Jerome Robbins ballets was on the program. The tickets were waiting at Elise’s apartment.

Newton managed to reach my Brazilian cell phone on his barely working cell at the last minute and we had a plan…I would go home and get a new award ticket reservation – now from São Paulo – and transfer the American Express miles for it.

Our caretaker, Marcos, drove me home from the airport and I thought I’d go down the beach for lunch once I had everything for my trip in place. What ensued was continued surreality, as calls to Continental were on hold for 20 minutes, and only after the third try did I guess that they could not hear me because the mike was not working on Newton’s computer. I dug out my just-stored computer and reached them after another 20-minute hold. I could get on that TAM day flight to NY and get back ONLY as far as São Paulo now...with an additional 17,000 miles from American Express to add to the original 100,000 and another purchased ticket returning to Natal. I was thrilled anyway!

I followed Newton’s instructions for transferring miles from the American Express website. We have had plenty of occasions where the internet connection we have via radio here by the beach shuts down for some minutes or hours, but what happened next was just twilight zone. I followed the instructions and at each click to proceed on the site, thirty minutes would pass before the needed page would come up. I was going crazy enough, but then noticed the statement on the site that it may take 24-48 hours for miles to transfer. Now I panicked and called the contact phone number. Five minutes later, the miles were transferred and I was ready to call Continental back to ticket the reservation. A small peak in an afternoon of valleys.

I had reached Newton on his São Paulo layover, and he confirmed that he would pick me up at JFK the next afternoon in his rental car, as his flight would get him in very early. I thawed out a chicken dish from the freezer and waited till midnight, when Marcos drove me back to the airport.

My first concern was the fact that the flight was delayed till 2:30AM. This meant a shorter window in São Paulo the next morning to catch the international flight. My next concern was that there were no seats left in the Natal airport, so I stood waiting till 2:30…then 3:30, experiencing increasing panic that there would not be time to make the NY flight. When we boarded at last, I was reminded of that other feature of last-minute booking besides higher prices: the ‘B’ seat in between two sprawling guys. If I folded my arms, I still had to tuck my fingertips under to avoid touching the guy. There were no pillows for my lower back and no snacks.

Once in São Paulo I raced to the baggage claim, eyes on the clock…waiting, waiting…finally grabbed my bag and ran to the international terminal, praying the entire way that TAM, being a Brazilian airline, would not enforce the closing of flight check-in one hour prior to the international flight. They did. But a sympathetic agent, seeing the gasping of an aging woman, took mercy and let me check in. As he handed me my boarding pass he said, “Here’s your first class boarding pass.” I said, “first class?” and an entourage of people ushered me into a swanky office where they figured out how to get my bag on board in time. An agent escorted me through immigration and security in minutes, then handed me over to another caretaker on board who led me past the full business class section into the 4-seats-across, deserted first class cabin.

The next nine-and-a-half hours were ample compensation for the hellish previous twenty! Immediately came the pillows, comforter, slippers, all kinds of products, incomparable breakfast, champagne, huge flat-screen movie, more champagne, nap on the completely horizontal bed, incomparable lunch with the best white Bordeaux of my life, two desserts, and a beautiful bathroom all to myself. And as if this were not enough, when I disembarked another agent escorted me to US immigration and met me beyond with my bag.

I went out and headed directly to the pick-up sidewalk. I was watching carefully for Newton, as I didn’t know what rental car to expect. I waited. And I waited. After about two hours I decided I had to go in and try to call Elise. I had no cell phone for the US and knew that Newton was expecting to buy a new phone while there. I was petrified that he would arrive as soon as I went back into the terminal and mistakenly decide that I had caught a cab…to where?...but I was getting desperate, colder and colder as darkness fell, and the ballet curtain time was approaching. I found a phone that took credit cards, figuring it would be complicated to get cash machine bills and then change. I got Elise’s voicemail and left a tearful, anguished message, then raced back outside in case Newton had arrived. After another hour passed and I was in tears and it was virtually too late to get to the ballet on time, I thought about getting cash and catching a cab to the ballet or to Elise’s apartment…but what if I just had to stand outside in the cold, abandoned, there? I decided to go back in, get cash from a machine, buy a phone card and try to call Jake in Las Vegas to see if he could try to reach them. I thought I’d just try Elise once more first, and presto! – we were both suddenly screaming into the phone, “WHERE ARE YOU?????” It turns out that Newton and Elise had been waiting outside immigration for three hours, thinking I still had not come out. I hadn’t looked for them because Newton had used the words “pick you up,” not “meet your plane,” and they did not see me when I came out. We had been tripped up by syntax, missed views, missed call, and assurances to Newton from workers around there that it could, indeed, take that long for me to come out. He had already confirmed with the NY City Ballet box office that we could get in without the tickets that were still at Elise’s apartment.

From this valley - me frozen, all of us incredulous and going over every faux pas repeatedly - we took off for the ballet, knowing it was just starting. We had fully planned to change at Elise’s first, so all of us looked skuzzy. They let us go in twenty minutes late. There I was back in the New York State Theater, my ‘church’ for nine years from 1978 to 1987 when I had a subscription every season, fourth ring, front row center. Chopin’s etudes were being played on a piano while romantic couples and groups interpreted various interludes of Robbins’ gorgeous Dances at a Gathering. A peak. This was followed by Robbins’ late ‘60’s NY Export: Opus Jazz – as fresh, athletic, colorful and inventive as ever.

The remainder of the trip was fun and eventful, but less dramatic than this first 36 hours.




  1. You do know how to make things exciting! I do suppose getting the first class ticket did make up for all of the flight problems, but the connections in NYC must have driven you somewhat crazy. Hopefully you were able to relax and enjoy the ballet after such a stressful beginning.

    On our last trip to NY we saw Giselle done by the American Ballet and it was absolutely wonderful. I do believe there were times when Giselle's feet hardly touched the ground and the Willis were perfectly synchronized. It was a beautiful thing to watch.


  2. Sandy,
    I was so distressed that you were going to miss the ballet- that I broke into tears of relief- this after having held my breath for what seemed hours- when I finally imagined you racing through the streets of NYC for the theater. And then the sheer pleasure of watching the dance...

    Now perhaps we should all pitch in and buy appropriate communication devices to spare you such adventures- But then "alls well that ends well" and this story I must say was "one hell of a good read". So maybe we shouldn't get you that communication device after all... We get much too much pleasure from just tagging along on your unscripted adventures.

  3. I'm exhausted! Also impressed that you were able to negotiate the technological challenges of rescheduling your flights; that you had the stamina to endure a 2-hour delay for a 3 1/2 hour flight in a cramped Seat B; and finally that you traveled in such luxury to NYC! I do remember running through an airport or two with you, but nothing that compares to this.

    I'm so glad you made it to the ballet!

    Love, Lenna


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