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The Great White North – Tips 2

December 27, 2007

This is not a list, like the last. This is just one big tip, from me to you.

If you are traveling to The Great White North, and you don’t have a non-stop flight, take carry-on luggage only. Suck it up and deal with the 3 oz. or less containers in the quart-sized Ziploc bag. Or buy your toiletries on the other end. Just do it. Really.

Save yourself the hassle of checking baggage.

It’s been at least 10 years since I was in Canada last, long before 9/11 and its aftermath. That time I flew into Toronto and connected to Ottawa. I remember spending awhile in Customs and Immigration (not as long as I did in Vancouver – read about that debacle here), but I got through and I don’t remember having any major baggage issues.

Let me say also that I didn’t have baggage issues on the flight up to Montreal. It just seemed odd to me that I had to collect my bags in Toronto, clear Customs, and then re-check the bags. It was more of an annoyance than an actual issue.

The return trip? Oh. My. Gosh. Was. It. Painful! I’m not kidding.

I had a two-hour layover in Toronto. No big deal, I thought. Plenty of time to collect my things, clear Customs, re-check, get back through security, blah, blah… and blah. I was so wrong.

This little part of the adventure began at the Connections baggage claim which, for those of you who have not previously had the pleasure, is a giant baggage claim area for all flights connecting to the US. What fun. The group of people standing around waiting for bags was about as large as the population of a small African country and the square footage alloted to this space was not much. There was lots of jostling, jockeying for position, squeezing by, elbowing, and general unkindness. Shocking, I know… the Friday before Christmas.

My favorite part was watching a couple wearing Santa hats giving the big finger to someone. It reminded me of a story I heard about a woman getting arrested for similar behavior because she was driving a car with a fish on the back and the officer assumed, given her behavior, that the car must have been stolen. I prayed, as the couple shouted some expletives to the folks behind them, that no children were present who might think Santa really acted like that.

Anyway, my flight from Montreal had landed at 4pm. My flight home was due to take off at 6:10pm. I waited in the baggage claim area for quite some time, watching the clock, getting a glimpse here and there of the baggage claim conveyor belt, not seeing my bag. I didn’t see anyone else’s bags either, for that matter. While there were a gazillion people, there were hardly any bags.

The minutes ticked by and I got nervous. Finally, many, many bags began to come down onto the belt and be collected, just not mine. I started to wonder if I was actually in the right spot. I have traveled extensively, and I usually know my way around, but there was something disconcerting about not speaking French, poor signage, and the time issue. I decided to ask at the desk.

“Am I in the right place? My bags don’t seem to be coming.”

“Oui, Madame. You are in the right place. Your bags will come. Please be patient. We have many travelers today.”

Back to the conveyor belt I went. I waited some more. At 5pm, my anxiety level ratcheted up a notch. I did NOT want to spend the night in Toronto. I was tired and I missed my family. I wanted to go home! I spied an Air Canada employee and thought maybe she could set my mind at ease.

“How long will it take to clear Customs, re-check and get back through security?” I asked.

“You should be good if you have at least a half hour,” she replied. “Where are you coming from?”

“Montreal,” I said.

“Me too. We’re waiting on baggage for these ladies here,” she said, gesturing to a couple of women in wheelchairs. “Evidently there was some sort of mixup with the bags from Montreal. They put domestic bags in with foreign bags, and foreign bags in with domestic. It’s a huge mess.”

Outstanding. At 5:15pm, I laid eyes on the only person in the place who looked like he might have authority. He had a badge, a uniform, and a radio he was talking into with great gusto. I asked him what the deal was with my bags. He agreed that there had been a problem, but assured me that they had rectified it and my bags would be on the belt in short order. He told me that I should just let Customs know that I was in a hurry when I finally got there, and they would send me right to the front of the line.

At 5:35pm, my suitcase finally showed up. The remaining 5 gazillion or so people had already collected their bags and moved on, so my bag was easy to spot. But I had checked two, and my overnight case was nowhere in sight. I was out of time.

I checked back in at the desk.

“I’m still missing one bag, but I just don’t have any more time. My flight is boarding in 15 minutes,” I told them.

They stamped my baggage claim ticket, assured me that they would find my other bag and forward it on. Someone would bring it to me when it arrived.

I took my bag and sped around the corner to Customs. The line was unbelievable. I went straight to the front and told another uniformed, badge-wearing, radio-holding employee that I had a flight that was boarding in less than 15 minutes.

“I’m sorry,” he said flatly. “The line starts back there.” So much for that plan.

I gritted my teeth and got in line. I have to hand it to the US Customs folks. They actually got me to the front pretty quickly. But by the time I cleared, it was 5:50pm. My flight was boarding and I still had to re-check my suitcase and get through security.

I re-checked my suitcase in 3.2 seconds flat and moved on to security.  Evidently the airport had planned well (dripping with sarcasm, here), and had opened up three whole lines for the multitudes. I was sure, at this point, that I would never make my flight. Even better? I was behind a gentleman that was not in a hurry, and had more on his person than I have in my home.

He proceeded to unload the contents of his 18,000 bags, boxes and other assorted parcels into gray tubs and was up to tub number 15 when I stopped counting. My jaws were clenched (probably will result in TMJ at some point in the future) so tightly that I thought I might break a tooth. I breathed in and out slowly through my nose and worked on the relaxation techniques I know. Several interminable minutes later, Boy Wonder with his 18,000 bags, boxes and parcels had made it through and it was my turn.

I laid my laptop into a gray tub, tossed my backpack in another, my giant coat and snow boots in another, and my purse and bag of souvenirs in the last one. I charged through the metal detector, praying that it would not go off for any reason whatsoever, and proceeded to gather my things.

Suddenly, the conveyor belt ground to a halt and the man and his assistant security-checker person began talking excitedly in French. The assistant snatched something out from inside of my souvenir bag and held a 20 ounce bottle of Diet Coke high in the air.

“What is THIS?” she snapped.

“Um, Diet Coke?” I said, wondering if they were having trouble reading the label which was clearly marked in BOTH English and French. I had forgotten that I had purchased said Diet Coke back in Montreal after I had cleared security and I hadn’t thought about it since because I hadn’t technically come out of a secured area. Silly me.

I’m sure that folks with Diet Coke bottles cause all kinds of horrible travesties in airports across the world and maybe I looked evil at that moment. I’m sure my hair was disheveled and I know my eyes were wild. My jaw was clenched, and I was breathing madly, trying not to panic about missing my flight. I probably looked like I was about to cause trouble…

“NOT ALLOWED!” she yelled at me, like I was some kind of criminal.

“Do you have a trashcan?” I asked in return.

She gave a curt nod that caused her bangs to fall into her eyes, and suddenly reminded me of some kind of bizarre German headmistress that might have a knuckle-rapping ruler in her back pocket.

“THEN THROW IT AWAY, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!” I yelled back. “I’m about to miss my flight.”

That seemed to calm them down. Evidently they were then convinced that I wasn’t on some sort of crazy mission, and they passed the remainder of my things through. I squashed my feet down into my boots in exactly the way I tell my kids never to do, threw my coat back on, grabbed my backpack, shoved my laptop into it, took my souvenir bag, and headed down the terminal at light speed.

As I was going, I realized that my gate was the very last gate in the terminal and I heard the powers that be paging me.

“Passenger Stephanie, please report immediately to Gate Blah, Blah, Blah for IMMEDIATE boarding. Passenger Stephanie, please report immediately to Gate Blah, Blah, Blah for IMMEDIATE boarding.”

It seemed a little redundant really–report immediately for immediate boarding–but I guess they were stressing that I wasn’t going to make the flight, too. I began to run.

This wasn’t so much running as it was thunking at a very high rate of speed. Picture me, all bundled up with my heavy coat, hat and scarf, snow boots on my feet, extraordinarily heavy backpack containing my laptop slung on one shoulder, my purse in one hand, my souvenir bag (lighter now by one Diet Coke but still not so light) in the other. I’m pretty sure I looked like The Abominable Snowman clomp, clomp, clomping through the terminal.

I said “Excuse Me” a thousand times (when will people read those darn signs that say “Walk Left, Stand Right”?), and finally, finally, finally, in slow clomping motion, to the last dying notes of Chariots of Fire playing in my head, made it to the gate.

The gentleman at the gate nodded at me as I slammed my boarding pass down on the counter, by this point completely out of breath and sweating profusely in my heavy down coat, and he pointed to the ramp.

“There,” he said.

I went.

I was the last person on the flight.

But I made it home for Christmas and that’s all that really mattered. Several hours later, as I was looking down at the twinkling lights of my fair city out the window, feeling the excitement of seeing my husband after several days away, relief flooded over me.

At that moment, I vowed to never check another piece of luggage to Canada again…


Long live the carry-on.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. clevergrl permalink
    December 27, 2007 11:58 am

    lol Don’t you LOVE airports? I love people watching in airports – you can find so many different personalities, like your guy with all the time in the world. We spend a lot of time in airports, getting Sunshine back and forth. I strongly suggest never checking anything ever, even if your not going to Canada. It’s too much of a pain in the ass and too many people I know have lost their stuff.

  2. Lynda permalink
    December 27, 2007 12:29 pm

    I guess I’ve been fortunate that I’m not terribly well traveled and have only flown to San Diego, Phoenix and Denver with luggage in tow. I’ve never had this type of amazingly frustrating situation to deal with. However, should I decide to visit our friendly neighbors to the North I will indeed heed your advice and try to limit myself to carryon luggage only.

    Thank you for the amusing retelling of your experience! As always, it’s fun to read your blog my dear cousin!

  3. December 27, 2007 2:37 pm

    HA!!!! What a great post!!! I hate airports! I can seriously empathize with you. I’m still laughing…what a great post. I can totally see you, disheveled hair gone wild yelling WELL THEN THROW IT OUT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!!!!! HA! You kill me.

  4. December 27, 2007 4:10 pm

    Been there. Done that. Business travel is so glamorous ain’t it?

  5. December 28, 2007 8:25 am

    I hate travelling, especially airports! I think they are specifically designed to test patience and stress levels. I’m glad you made it home on time though!

  6. December 29, 2007 9:01 pm

    another reason to despise flying. aside from the fact that, i hold my breath, the whole time i’m in the air! i think that everyone that works in the airport…they try to get people to miss their planes. it’s part of their job description! i’m glad you made it in time…yay!!
    have an awesome new years…holy crap…2008!

  7. tulips4me permalink
    December 30, 2007 6:30 pm

    I am surprised that you didn’t shove the diet coke…I mean next time don’t try to carry on contraband soda. I mean really, what were you thinking? 🙂

  8. tulips4me permalink
    January 1, 2008 3:18 pm

    Come back and blog!

  9. January 2, 2008 5:24 pm

    Sweet. God.

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