Geneva to Seattle

A Travel Nightmare

I usually write trip reports about adventures in the mountains, but sometimes the wildest adventures occur just trying to get home. After our wonderful trip in the Alps, where everything went smoothly, our trip home was a disaster. This is the story of the crux traverse from Geneva to Seattle.

Kelly and I had a flight booked to Reykjavík, a two hour layover there, and then a flight to Seattle. The night before, we tried to check in online, but it said we had been “put on standby” and we could get our seats at the gate. We had no idea what “standby” was but it did not sound good. Apparently it meant we did not have a seat. It was very confusing because Kelly’s dad had explicitly paid for us to reserve a seat months ago. How could we not have a seat?

On Wednesday morning, we took the train to Geneva and showed up well in advance of our flight so we could ensure we got a seat. We were so early that there was no one even in our wing of the terminal. When we approached the employees at the desk, they said that “standby” meant we actually had no seat and could only get on if there were no-shows. There were actually six people who were on standby. As more people showed up and started to board, we began to realize that we were going to get screwed.

We watched in disbelief as people boarded the plane and our names were never called. Afterwards, the six of us huddled around the Swissport employees asking when we could fly next. It should be the responsibility of the airlines to get us replacement flights as soon as possible, right? Wrong. Our flight was with Iceland Air, and Iceland Air had no employees in the entire Geneva airport. The Swissport employees politely told us there was nothing they could do and we had to call Iceland Air support ourselves.

Being in Europe, we had no international calling on our phone plans, so we found a free public payphone and tried to call the number we were given. It took us a good 10 minutes just to figure out how to call a number in Iceland from Switzerland and we were immediately put on hold. After half an hour, we finally got to talk to a customer support agent, who promptly put us on hold again and dropped the call. Incredible!

When we finally talked to this agent again, he explained rudely that because we had booked the flight through Alaska Airlines, Iceland Air could not set us up with a flight with a different airline. And since Iceland Air only had one flight per day from Geneva, they could not put us on a flight to Iceland until one week later. ONE WEEK LATER! And then there was not guarantee when we could get a flight from Iceland to Seattle. I was aghast. A weeklong delay was unfathomable: we would miss my cousin’s wedding in two days and my company offsite, my only opportunity to meet my new co-workers in person.

To add further insult to injury, we asked the agent if Iceland Air would at least pay for our food, lodging, and transportation in the meantime. They responded that, because we did not fly to Geneva with Iceland Air, it was as if we were “at home” (in his words) and thus Iceland Air did not / could not pay for our expenses. This is counter to EU law, US law, and every standard of being a responsible corporation. I was fed up with Iceland Air. Their treatment of us was absolutely abominable. What a worthless piece of shit airline!

Screw Iceland Air.

We accepted defeat and left the terminal to pick up our checked bag. Then we sat down and started to go through our options. Kelly’s dad helped us call Alaska Airlines, where we talked to a customer service agent. When we explained our situation, they said it was Iceland Air’s responsibility to get a new flight for us. No matter what we said, the woman was like a broken record, refusing to help us. Iceland Air said it was Alaska’s responsibility. Alaska said it was Iceland’s responsibility. We felt abandoned.

Here we go…

Needing some way to cool off, I turned to social media to vent. The responses I got from people were quick and very empathetic. People sent me links for filing a claim to get money from Iceland Air and explained the travel regulations in our favor. Others sent me alternative flight ideas. Some people suggested tagging these companies on Twitter or Instagram. So I tagged Alaska and Iceland Air on Instagram and response was immediate.

After getting a completely useless customer service agent on the phone earlier, a different Alaska rep responded to my Instagram story asking how they could help. This person was much more helpful and said that they would reach out to their partner airlines to find the soonest way they could get us home. But the problem was that nearly every flight out of Europe was booked for the indefinite future. Our research confirmed this.

Friends had been sending us alternative ticket options. Buying a ticket for the next day or two from Geneva to Seattle was simply out of question, as prices were OVER $5,000 PER SEAT (talk about price gouging)! But there were some interesting alternatives that seemed plausible (more like $1000 per seat):

  • Take a six hour train to Frankfurt, and fly direct to Seattle (there was only one open seat, and it disappeared in minutes).
  • Take a three hour train to Basel, fly to Vancouver BC (with a layover in Montreal) and bus home (crazy amount of total travel time, and only one open seat left).

We searched every airport within six hours of Geneva, with flights to Vancouver or Seattle. Eventually, we lowered our standards and looked for any way to simply get from Europe to the mainland USA. There was one intriguing option: fly next day from Frankfurt to San Francisco, where we could get a separate flight home. It seemed like it could get us home before the Friday night wedding two days later.

Meanwhile, the Alaska rep had found a flight from Geneva to Seattle five days later, next Monday. We had to make a quick decision, and told the rep to book us for that, although Monday was still pretty unreasonable, considering that would mean we would miss the wedding and I would have to fly out just a few hours after getting home to my company offsite. But it was better than nothing.

Kelly staying positive even when I was semi-raging.

Among the people who saw our travel disaster unfold on Instagram was a guy named Riley Peper. I had never chatted with him before, but it turned out he worked for Alaska Airlines and was disturbed by what he was witnessing. So he told us he would have a friend in booking see if they could help us out.

At the moment, it seemed like the best option was to take a train to Frankfurt the next morning and then fly to San Francisco. I booked two tickets for us. After six exhausting hours of calling, researching, and texting, it seemed like we finally had a solution. I close my laptop and we boarded the train to return to Lusanne, where we had been staying with one of Kelly’s college friends, also named Kyle.

On the ride home, Kelly asked me to check the confirmation email, so I pulled it up on my computer and… discovered that THE TICKETS WERE FOR LATE AUGUST!!!! What?!?! How did that happened? I swore I clicked on Thursday, July 28th. But maybe I did not? Who knows whether it was me or the website glitching. I guess that is why there were affordable tickets still available. Regardless, that plan went down the drain. Fortunately, we were able to cancel the tickets for a full refund since we had just placed them. That only took a 30 minute phone call.

It was dark outside, I had completely missed dinner, and felt exhausted like I have few times in my life. I love mountain sports because we control so much of the outcome. But now I felt completely powerless. Things were happening to me. I felt ignored, tricked, and utterly defeated.

It was at this darkest hour that a beam of light entered our lives. I got a message from Riley Peper that his friend had found a potential flight on Friday. It would involve two layovers: Geneva to London, London to Las Vegas, and Las Vegas to Seattle. All in all, it would be over 30 hours of travel time. We knew that London Heathrow was the scariest airport in the world at the moment, with multi hour lines and cancelled flights galore. We would miss the wedding. But at this point, what other options did we have? We have to give a huge shoutout to Riley for continuing to push and help us, two strangers, get home. Thank you so much, Riley.

On Thursday, Kelly and I worked from her friend’s house and we felt a little better. We were disappointed we would miss the wedding and there was still so much that could go wrong. Mentally, I was prepared for more delays.

When we had tried to check in with British Airways, we noticed there seemed to be glitches on their website, although we could successfully check into the first leg of the trip after many attempts. However, when we arrived at the Geneva airport, we were unsurprised to find a long check-in line, as seemingly no one else was able to check in online. So in addition to checking bags, everyone was trying to check in and get their boarding passes. There were only two agents working and the line was moving very slowly. We started to get nervous if we were even going to make our flight to London.

British Airways traffic jam.

At first, there was just nervous chatter among the travelers. We got to know a British man with a dry sense of humor. “Everyone just uses Covid as an excuse these days. Why doesn’t online check in work? Oh, it’s because of Covid.” (say this to yourself in a British accent) But the nervousness turned to complete anarchy as the customer service agents moved around and the “queues” fell apart. Kelly and I split up between different desks to increase our odds. One old French woman cut Kelly and sneered at us. A family with a small child cut in front, justifying that they had to with a small child. I am not a violent person by any means, but I felt true rage. I wanted to hurt something.

Finally, we got our single bag checked. Fortunately, we were blessed with a minimal security line and made it to the gate ten minutes before boarding. The first obstacle had been surmounted.

We slept well on the flight to London. The layover was about five hours long, so we worked some and Kelly ran into one of her old co-workers! After boarding, our plane sat on the tarmac for an hour before taking off, but finally we were leaving Europe!

The trans-Atlantic flight was actually a nice one, with a screen and plenty of movies! Kelly and I watched both Despicable Me 1 and 2 before getting some sleep. This is a long flight, but it went by pretty quickly.

As we descended into Las Vegas, we flew through some strong turbulence, strong enough to make me vomit. The pilot reported that they were taking an alternative approach due to the nearby thunderstorms. But as this point, the flight schedules were all messed up and there were no spots for us to land. Within an hour, I noticed that we were starting to climb again. We were being diverted to Phoenix.

At this point, the plane let out a collective groan. But honestly, Kelly and I did not care that much. We were not going to make the last flight from Vegas to Seattle that night, so we were going to have to spend the night in the Vegas airport anyways. Sleeping on a plane is nicer than sleeping in the airport, we figured.

The plane landed and refueled in Phoenix. I had a sneaking suspicion that we might bump up against the flight crew maximum work time, and the pilot informed us that we were approaching their limit indeed. After a few nervous minutes, he then announced that they would be able to make it Las Vegas that night within regulations, but just barely. It turns out we were very lucky. Many of the other flights that got diverted from Las Vegas that night never returned to Vegas. They just dropped off their passengers wherever and said “Good luck”.

We landed in Vegas around midnight, went through customs, and picked up our checked bag. Since we could not check our bag and go through security at 1 am, we were stuck in the airport lobby, with no good place to sleep. Kelly chose a chair, while I slept on the hard ground, laying out my clothes to create at least a little cushion.

Kelly catching some zzzs in the Vegas Airport.

After a little nap, I woke up and figured I would at least get a little exercise. The straight away in the airport is about 1/3 mile, so I ran a few laps back and forth, notching three miles. It was probably my weirdest run yet.

After all the trials and tribulations, our flight from Las Vegas to Seattle was rather anticlimatic. But as we descended into Seattle and we gazed out across Puget Sound and the Issaquah Alps, I did feel relieved to finally be heading home.

Our checked bag showed up without a hitch and Kelly’s dad picked us up from the airport. We were able to swing by my aunt’s house and briefly see some of the aunts before they left to the airport. And in the afternoon, Kelly got to meet many of my cousins, which was a nice consolation after missing the wedding. Kelly’s dad started to feel sick that afternoon and tested positive for COVID. After two years of escaping the Rona and traveling all around Europe, Kelly finally succumbed to the disease, having caught it from her dad in the car. What a way to go down!

It has now been nearly a month since this travel nightmare. Kelly and her dad have recovered from COVID. We are nowhere near recovered from this disaster. I have heard about stories like this, but hoped I would never have to experience it myself. However, this summer, it seems like the anomaly is a Europe trip that goes off without a hitch. I am definitely ready to take a break from traveling for a while. Now comes the grunt work of trying to recover some of the money I am owed by Iceland Air.

Thank you to many people: Kelly’s dad for helping us troubleshoot, many friends for looking for alternative flights, Kelly’s friend Kyle for letting us stay extra days at his place, and Riley Peper for saving us. But the biggest thanks goes to Kelly herself for being a helpful and calming through a very stressful experience. Sometimes the wildest adventures are the ones you do not expect, and as always, chose your adventure partners wisely.

5 thoughts on “Geneva to Seattle”

  1. What a nightmare! Sounds like an Alaska Grade 6 traverse for sure. Here’s to the kindness of friends and strangers, patience and good partners, and good luck with getting reparations from Icelandair

  2. Thank God for the power of social media shaming! It makes me even more grateful for my painless return a few days ago (thanks in part to a couple of friends). I am just catching up on what the rest of the world has been up to, so I appreciated your (and Kelly’s) wrapup post. It sounds like you had a positive introduction to the Alps, and I hope you get a chance to return sooner rather than later. I agree that Aosta is underrated — a safe distance from the tourist hordes of Chamonix/Courmayeur, but close enough by car or bus, and with some amazing backyard mountains (and road riding).

    1. I am glad your trip home had no issues, although I am curious what you mean by “in part to a couple of friends”. Where should I ship your climbing shoes and cam?

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