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Jim Spier, NSSF - Live on-site
Getting There ...

Wild Trip Is Par For The Course For Seasoned International Meet Travelers

from NationalScholastic.org

I have been traveling internationally to World Junior and World Youth championships since 1988, when the Second World Junior Championships was held in Sudbury, Canada. This year's trip will take us to Ostrava in the Czech Republic for the World Youth Championships (for those under 18).

We (Joy Kamani and I) got our tickets last August using our frequent traveler miles. Because of a joint USAirways/Lufthansa agreement, my ticket had to be a paper ticket rather than an electronic one.

I arrived at Raleigh Durham airport on Monday morning almost three hours prior to my flight departure. There was a reason for that. I had checked my reservation the day before and found that my return had been changed: rather than go from Prague to Frankfurt to Munich to the US, I would be going from Prague to Munich, eliminating one "leg".

It seemed to be an easy change. Not so with a paper ticket. You know the guy who's at the airport ticket counter for an interminable amount of time with the agent who is dealing with him on the phone calling reservations central? The guy you hate? That was me. It was over an hour to resolve the problem, but it got resolved. But the baggage tags had to be hand-written, not electronically generated. That, in itself, was a nightmare-in-the-making.

The agent gave me my ticket back with the boarding passes as the way through to Prague (we had a separate ticket for the leg to Ostrava). "You have your boarding passes all the way though", she said. Great! I can just go right to the gates at Charlotte, Newark and Frankfurt without any delays.

Off to Charlotte to connect to the Newark flight to Frankfurt. No issues. (I had allowed about a three hour window in case there were delays. I couldn't afford to miss the Frankfurt flight, because I would miss the Prague connection and therefore the Prague-Ostrava connection). Of course, the Newark flight was delayed - about 1 1/2 hours.

But I got to Newark with 1 1/2 hours to spare. Good enough - just walk to the Frankfurt departure gate and I'm off. Not so easy. I walked out of the secure area, to another terminal via the skytrain. Got to the new terminal. Great, I'll just go right through security to the gate.

Not so easy. "These are not valid boarding passes" said the security guy. "Yes they are", I said, I got them in Raleigh Durham and they said I could use them all the way through. "Nope", he said. "You have to go to the Lufthansa ticket counter".

Off I go to the Lufthansa ticket counter. As usual, there's a family going to Pakistan accompanied by six large boxes and an agent on the phone trying to sort out their problem. Luckily a new agent appeared and said, "you're at the wrong ticket counter. You have to go to Window 17.”

Off to Window 17. "Do you have luggage to check?” asked the agent. "Yes, I checked it all the way through in RDU", I replied. "We have no record of it", she said. I produced the handwritten luggage tag receipt and she entered it into the record. This was not encouraging.

I got through security with my new boarding passes without incident and went to the Frankfurt departure gate. "Due to late arrival from Germany, the Frankfurt flight will be delayed one hour". Dandy!!!. Now I have an hour instead of two to make my Prague connecting flight.

The flight to Frankfurt was uneventful. We would deplane at Gate 22 in terminal B, and board the Prague flight at Gate 55 in terminal B. That should be easy.

Gate 55 was nowhere to be found. "Where is it?” I asked a Lufthansa employee. "You have to go upstairs", she said. I did, but any indication of Terminal B had disappeared.

The scene "upstairs" was total chaos. There were hordes of people on interminable lines and no sign of Gate 55. I finally found it. It was back downstairs. Why did she tell me to go upstairs in the first place?

Back though security for that particular gate and to the seating area next to the smoking section. Then on to a bus which took us to the plane sitting about a mile away on the runway apron. Off to Prague.

We arrive in Prague and to a modern airport comparable to one the size of, say, the Indianapolis airport. I went to the connections area of Czech Airlines and got my boarding pass for the flight to Ostrava. Joy Kamani had already gotten hers, according to the agent, so she had obviously already arrived (Joy had gone from Houston to Cincinnati to New York to Prague).

Now though passport control to pick up my luggage. I held my breath, but it was there!

Now I had to check it to Ostrava. I asked how to do this and was told to go upstairs. I went upstairs to see more hordes of people but, luckily, there was one station just for checking luggage (since I already had my boarding pass). "I will be happy to check it for you", the agent said. "Oh, there is a problem", he said. "You are in Terminal 1. Your plane leaves from Terminal 2 and you have to check the bag there.”

I walked about a half mile with my baggage to Terminal 2. The crowds were even worse. Fortunately I did find a guy who had just opened his window and checked the bag. Now back through passport control. I start to see teams - Lativa, Russia - who were headed to Ostrava. It’s starting to feel like a meet.

Now I have to find Joy. I make my way to the gate and go through security. I managed to find Joy and was happy to see her. She was in Prague, but her luggage was not. It would arrive tomorrow (at least one of us had clothes!).

Finally, they announced the flight for Ostrava. As we are ready to board, the agent announces, "The passport control officer has just arrived. You must go back out and have him double check your passport". We did. All was fine, and we got on the bus to the plane awaiting us near the runway apron.

Off to Ostrava. In this plane, we embarked in the rear of the plane (it was a propeller plane holding about 80 passengers). The business class was the last 4 rows. We were in economy. The seats were identical. The only difference between the two classes was that the business class passengers received a salad with their sandwich rather than the plain sandwich we received in economy.

We landed in Ostrava less than an hour after takeoff. It is in the eastern part of he country near the border to Slovakia and about 15 miles south of Poland. The airport is about the size of that in Pocatello, Idaho.

They took us off the plane and put us on a bus to the terminal. The terminal was about 50 feet away from where the bus was parked. The pilot and stewardess walked to the terminal. We were put on a bus and driven to the terminal, an extra step which took an additional 10 minutes.

They dropped us off at the main rear entrance because we had to go through passport control (again). But there was no one there, so they told us to just go directly to baggage claim.

Next to baggage claim was the welcome desk for the meet, whose volunteers would provide transportation to our hotel, the Hotel Atom. I retrieved my bag and was told to see in the waiting area. A shuttle would be arriving in 25 minutes. So I took the time to use the restroom. When I returned, the shuttle was loading. "What happened to the 25 minutes,” I asked Joy Kamani. "It's here!” she said wryly.

The ride to town was about 20 miles, longer than I expected. The driver, a volunteer, was an older man who looked to be a holdover from the Communist regime.

We arrived first at the Hotel Harmony, which we assumed was for some of the other passengers. The driver said to Joy and me, "This is your hotel.” I said, "No. We're at the Hotel Atom.” He said, "No. All press must stay at the Hotel Harmony.” I said, "No. We have reservations and confirmations at the Hotel Atom.” He stormed off, calling his contact. He gave me his cell phone to have me speak the party on the other end. "All press must stay at the Harmony Hotel,” she said. "I have reservations at the Hotel Atom,” I said. "No,” she said.

I told Joy that, perhaps, things had changed and we were to be at the Hotel Harmony. So we got out of the van. The driver slammed the door behind us and sped off, grumbling under his breath.

We went to the front desk at the Hotel Harmony and they had no reservations for us. We asked if they could call the Hotel Atom for us. They did and said, "Yes. You do have reservations at the Hotel Atom." We hailed a taxi and were off to the Hotel Atom.

We arrived at Hotel Atom and, indeed, we had our reservations there. I saw the driver in the lobby and said, "I told you so.” He pointed to his supervisor and said it was her fault.

We decided to get our credentials before going to our room. We were directed to the room in the hotel to get them. "We have no record of your application.” I showed them the e-mail confirmation. "Oh. You must go the LOC (Local Organizing Committee) office.” We went to the LOC office in the hotel. "You must go to the stadium to get your credentials.” I pointed out the specific instructions stating that credentials must be picked up in the accreditation office in the hotel. The credentials magically arrived. They were there all along.

We finally settled in. What I have described was nothing really unusual. In Sudbury in 1988, I had paid the entire hotel bill in advance. After a four hour drive from Toronto to Sudbury and a 1:00 a.m. arrival at the hotel, we were told that there were no rooms available. It didn't matter that they had my money, they were sold out. They sent us to another hotel, which turned out to be a better one anyway.

In Marrakech in 2005, I had reservations and confirmation numbers. When we arrived at the hotel, there was no such record and no rooms. They put us in another hotel, which was much superior to the original one.

The point is that it could have been a lot worse. We (Joy and I) went into the whole thing knowing what to expect. And it was a lot easier (believe it or not) than it could have been. Let's hope Joy's luggage arrives today.

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