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Rio to New York via…Lisbon?

It took 48 hours and a side trip to Portugal, but I’ve finally made it back from Brazil.

After spending New Year’s week in South America, three friends and I arrived at the Rio de Janeiro airport to discover that our flight home had been canceled—and that the first available flight out of Rio on any airline would be on January 21. It was January 6.

We pleaded with an agent to find us at least one seat going anywhere on any flight that evening—one of my friends had to make it to Canada for a funeral. But after over an hour of suggesting solutions and being told we were stuck in Rio because it was “peak season” and because flights were full due to the “weak American dollar” (what?), we were turned away with hotel vouchers in hand and assured that the airline would conduct a “big meeting” to work out a solution overnight.

At the hotel, we met the rest of the stranded cast of characters (the motley group seated for midnight dinner looked like a flashback straight out of Oceanic Flight 815). We called family members in the US, who phoned the airline’s US service center, and one of the other passengers called his pilot uncle, all to no avail. While our outside sources all confirmed that there were indeed no seats for weeks, they also told us to go to the airport as early as possible the next morning. Surely our plane would arrive for us.

And so we headed to the airport again before 7am. The first airline employee arrived at 5:15pm.

In the meantime, we tried to take matters into our own hands by talking to other airlines, but without someone from our own airline to approve sending us via another, we were still stuck. We called the airline’s Brazilian phone number, which only went through five percent of the time, and which helped us zero percent of the time. We continued having family members call the US number, but the solutions they could offer were still days away. Somehow along the way, we ended up in the bowels of Air France’s lost luggage, where someone tried to give us random suitcases; we signed 4 contracts and waited 40 minutes to buy a phone card; we made random friends, including an Aerolineas Argentinas employee who was loose with a working telephone; and we became so adept at Portuguese that we translated for Spaniards ordering lunch (frango, carne, and queijo).

Also along the way, representatives from Brazil’s aviation administration showed up, demanding that the airport find a way to get us out of the country.

And, thankfully, our friend who had to get home immediately did, though it was of his own doing and on his own dime and involved five airports.

When the three of us remaining finally got to speak with an airline agent, being the first people in line paid off: they found a way to send us home to New York and LA almost immediately, but it would be via Lisbon. The one in Portugal. In Europe. On an airline with seats that reclined onto your lap and with maniacal toddlers in emergency-exit rows trying to open the exit door—I actually had to lunge to push the handle shut again while I waited in line for the restroom.

Two transatlantic flights, three Lisbon interrogations, and six confiscated duty-free bottles later, we landed at Newark. I’ve never worked so hard to end a vacation before, so as much as I miss the beach and the beauty of Brazil, I’m delighted to be home and back at work—two days late, but quite a bit before January 21.

Lessons learned? First of all, choose an airline with a sizeable presence in your destination airport; choosing one that runs one flight out of Rio a day left us with few options. And always confirm your flight’s status online before you head to the airport. I do this at home, but rarely when traveling, and that was a mistake. Don’t let employees push you away to a hotel before you’ve exhausted every option; things won’t necessarily be rosier in the morning. Definitely make sure you confirm what time your airline opens a counter at the airport. And lastly, give yourself some leeway when possible by going home a day or two early.

I hope those tips help others avoid my predicament. And now I’ll be attending to part two of my coming-home saga: the credit-card fraud that happened somewhere along the way. But even with the absurdity of the last few days, I’d do it all over again to see Brazil; while my case of transit woe is worse than any I’ve heard lately, it’s still a part of traveling. And it’s worth it.

michelle_doucette

My name: Michelle Doucette

How I earn my keep: I'm an editor at IgoUgo.com.

Favorite way to get around: Some of my favorite trips involved renting cars in foreign countries and driving through the countryside, stopping on whims. You get a feel for the culture away from the big cities and meet interesting people on the road, including, I must admit, an embarrassingly high number of local policemen. I suppose it would be prudent to learn all of the traffic laws ahead of time.

Best meal I've had while traveling: Since a succession of gelato cones probably doesn't count as a meal, my favorite must have been a fresh crabmeat lunch prepared by a St. John sailboat captain while we took a break from snorkeling in the Caribbean. Sharing baklava as the sun came up over Paros, Greece, (while, once again, not technically a meal) was also memorable.

Travel ambitions: Since climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I've figured out that I'd like to keep trekking while traveling. I've got my eyes on epic hikes in Nepal, Bhutan, and Peru.

Comments

Julie
Reply

Were you on the Continental airlines flight from Rio? I got stuck in Sao Paulo on the 6th with the same problem. Luckily I made my way through Quito, Ecuador. It was a little painful with the flying, but I got to see extra family that I have in Ecuador so that worked out nicely for me.

It is quite funny/horrible that that happened to so many people. It would have made more sense to just send another plane, but that would have ended up costing the company too much; they’d rather inconvenience hundreds of passengers.

Totally worth it for Brazil? Of course. Glad you made it back to the country too. You flew way more out of your way than I did. Next time try something within the continent, but at least you got a lot of frequent flier numbers!

Michelle
Reply

Yes, that canceled flight ended up being quite the adventure! I’m glad you found a solution by going through Ecuador. Did you see what stranded passengers did in Buenos Aires over the weekend? I can kind of understand their pain.

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