I Thought I Would Never Get Out of West Texas

In our years of travel we have not escaped the inevitable flight delays and missed connections. One time we had to overnight in Cincinnati on the way to New York, because of winter weather, and I vaguely remember one or two overnights in Salt Lake City, but we have never been delayed by more than a day on any flight, until our Christmas 2006 vacation where we were stranded in Dallas because of a winter storm in northern New Mexico.

First mistake. Don’t travel during the Christmas/New Year holidays, especially if you are just going for fun, like we were, and don’t have any family obligations. (Yeah right, I will probably do this again next winter.)

We thought about canceling our trip after watching the chaos the week before Christmas when Denver airport was closed for 45 hours, stranding 4,700 people at the airport. We were leaving on the day of Christmas Eve and people were still stranded in Denver, but we had our tickets and our flights were flying, so we went.

The Denver Post, “Trapped passengers settle in at airport; some reach hotels”, December 21, 2006
“Blizzard conditions closed Denver International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, hopelessly delaying tens of thousands of holiday travelers. About 5,000 passengers were stranded at the airport Wednesday evening – many pitching camp on the rugs and stone floors of the cavernous terminal.”

Our flights out went fine and we had a great week in New York City. On Saturday December 30, we were flying home. La Guardia airport was a crowded, unorganized, rude mess, but we got on our flight.

Second mistake. I booked online with America Airlines and the connection time on the return, at Dallas, was 45 minutes. This is not enough time. You need an hour between flights when changing in Dallas. This mistake did not matter in the long run.

Our flight to Dallas was late leaving and we were at the back of the plane, so we had to do a “fast walk” between terminals to get our connecting flight, only to find that all flights to Albuquerque were cancelled because of weather. The Dallas airport was already filled with people who had missed connections the day before (Friday) when Dallas airport was closed because of bad weather.

We talked to people at La Guardia that morning (when we spent 30 minutes in the line for people rebooking tickets because we did not realize that the kiosks labeled “American Eagle” were used for American Airlines checkin) that were trying to get to Dallas after having their Friday flights cancelled. Our flight was not cancelled, but other Dallas flights that morning were. We figured we would get home because we got our flight out of La Guardia and Albuquerque airport is hardly ever closed for bad weather, but they had an exceptional snowfall on Friday.

The Dallas Morning News, “American reconsiders its plan for stormy days. Fort Worth carrier is looking for better way to handle bad weather.“, Wednesday, January 3, 2007
“American canceled 435 flights that day (Friday), 426 of them because of bad weather. With many of its airplanes and crews out of place, American also canceled 158 flights on Saturday, 130 attributed to weather.”

We stood in the line at the counter by the gate and were the last people processed. I tried phoning American while waiting, but on the phone I was told that they could not give us a confirmed booking until January 3 – that would mean four nights in Dallas. I offered to buy a full fare ticket or pay for first class – nothing was available any earlier.

At the counter, each person was put on standby for the next flight. We knew there was little chance of us getting out that night because our entire cancelled flight was on standby and everyone was on the list before us, in addition to those from the flights cancelled on Friday.

We waited around the airport for a bit and saw the next flight to Albuquerque was cancelled, so we gave up. We could not get our luggage, but they told us it would go on to Albuquerque as soon as flights started. (We could ask for our luggage, but the agent said it would take hours, maybe longer to get it.) We had something to eat and made some phone calls.

We decided to rent a car and drive home. It is only 10 – 12 hours from Dallas to Albuquerque.

Last winter, on the way home from Hawaii, via Los Angeles, flying on Delta, we missed our connecting flight in Salt Lake City by minutes and I was in a rage because the flight was delayed by two off-duty airline personnel having an argument on our flight about who should sit in First Class! The flight was delayed while this was dealt with. The flight attendants on our delayed flight told us they would hold the connecting flights, but of course, that was a lie. There we were standing at the gate, we could see the plane, it was Delta personnel who delayed our flight, and they would not let us on the plane because the doors had been closed. We could not even get on the early flight the next day, but were scheduled for an afternoon flight. Continuing in my rage, I decided it was a six hour drive to Santa Fe, through beautiful Colorado, so we rented a car and headed south just as the sun was setting.

By midnight, we were still in Utah. Turns out it is a 13 hour drive to Santa Fe. We spent the night in some small town, hit the road early and had one of the most beautiful drives we have ever done, to Glenwood Springs and then south through Montrose, Ridgway, Ouray, up a narrow mountain road with ten feet of snow on each side to Silverton and down to Durango, east to Pagosa Springs, then south to Santa Fe. It was a spectacular drive, which would have been even better if we were not desperate to make it to Santa Fe by 6:30pm when the cat kennel closes. We had been in Hawaii for a month and wanted to see Buddy, our cat, ASAP. If we had spent the night in Salt Lake and flown out the next day, we would have been home hours earlier, but I still vividly remember that beautiful drive.

This has nothing to do with the current situation. Back in Dallas airport, I called the car rental agencies before we left the secure area in case there were no cars. I started with Avis, but they were not doing one way rentals, so I called Hertz and was able to get a car. By now it was getting dark and we had no luggage, but we did have a fully charged GPS (but no charger) and our cell phone (but no charger).

Third mistake. I am too casual about packing when heading home. I throw everything except electronics into the checked luggage. Always keep your chargers with you! (I am going to write that on my hand, so I remember.) It would have been nice to have a change of clothes, but in the end that was the least of my worries. I was fine wearing the same clothes for three days. I had our scarves, gloves and hats in our carryon, so we would be ready for winter weather in New Mexico, but I wish I had brought some toiletry things.

Our GPS told us that all the Whole Foods stores, where we could get the unscented soap and shampoo that we use, were miles out of our way, so we went to an Albertsons off the Interstate. They had Tom’s natural soaps, I slummed it and got regular toothpaste, Steve found some shaving things, and I found a mostly unscented shampoo. Having a bag of toiletries makes you feel human again! We loaded up on bottled water, apples, crackers, corn chips, and a map of Texas. I called friends at home to find out about the conditions and called my house sitter to ask her to check on Buddy once a day until we got home.

Santa Fe is at an elevation of 7,000 feet and is in the foothills of the Rockies – we have a ski area just outside of town – so we get lots of snow in the winter, but Albuquerque, at only 5,000 feet, does not get much snow. This storm, which hit on December 29, dumped over a foot of snow in Albuquerque and nearly two feet in Santa Fe. If we were an East Coast city, this would have been cleaned up in a day, but Albuquerque does not have much snow removal equipment. In Santa Fe our local “alternative” weekly paper had the headline: “Two feet of snow and six snow plows – You do the math”.

The good side of Santa Fe – low property taxes (we can do a trip to Europe each year on what we save on property taxes compared to California or New York). The bad side – not many city services. We all own four-wheel drive vehicles so we can get around in the winter. Most streets are not plowed (we live right in town and our street is not even paved). Usually we get a storm, have deep snow for a day, then the sun comes out, the temperatures rise, and everything melts off. Not this storm. It is January 4, seven days after the storm, and we still have about two feet of snow in the yard. Steve is on the roof now shoveling the snow off.

We were trying to get into New Mexico the day after the storm. We planned to take the southern route through El Paso and Las Cruces, but only got as far as Sweetwater, about three hours from Dallas. We spent the night in a really yucky Super 8, where I forced myself to not think about the sheets and bed, and then started out bright and early Sunday morning (New Year’s Eve).

How do vegetarians manage on the road in west Texas? In everyday life, we never eat in fast food restaurants, and hardly ever in chain restaurants, but when on the road we do. Cracker Barrel has several vegetarian options: a vegetable plate, baked potato, grilled cheese sandwich (ask them to leave off the bacon), breakfast all day (eggs, pancakes or French Toast with real maple syrup). Cracker Barrel restaurants used to be only in Kentucky, Tennessee, and neighboring states; now they are spreading across the country, but they are not everywhere. We had dinner our first night out at a Cracker Barrel in Abilene. Breakfast the next day was at McDonalds – yes! McDonalds – Egg McMuffin without meat and also without cheese for Steve. When you are hungry, they taste great! And the coffee is good.

On Saturday, the day of New Year’s Eve, we drove up and down west Texas, from Sweetwater to Lubbock to Amarillo, then back to Lubbock. We had two GPS systems screaming at us (our Garmin Nuvi and one that came with the car) to take the northern route, to Amarillo, then on I-40 to Albuquerque. I checked the map and it seemed to be the much shorter route. To continue to El Paso, we would be going south, and then north. The bad weather was over and we figured I-40 had to be open now because friends from Santa Fe told us I-25 was open.

Fourth mistake. When driving in winter storm conditions, phone the state highways department to find out which roads are closed. In the long run, this may not have helped because I-40 was opened and then closed and then opened again and I read an article in the paper where people were complaining that the road closure information was not kept up-to-date during this storm. But if I had realized how bad it was along I-40, I would have driven a different route.

Had we continued south, we would have been home for New Year’s Eve. Instead we headed north to Amarillo, off the Interstate and on beautiful country roads. The plains of west Texas are beautiful. The small towns are run down and look like they have not changed in decades. The wind was blowing and it was cold, but there was no snow.

As we approached Amarillo just after noon, we realized they had been hit by a major ice storm. No snow, just ice. The fields were silver; it looked like the cows were walking on air. The trees glistened; they were coated with ice. It was beautiful. We were driving along, on an Interstate now, amazed at what we were seeing. Then we saw a flashing sign saying I-40 west was closed.

We went to the Cracker Barrel in Amarillo for lunch and the manager told us they had opened I-40 the night before, but that a 50 car pile-up today had closed it again and it might be closed for 24 hours. Then the electricity in the Cracker Barrel went off.

Our cell phone still had some charge and I phoned Southwest to see if we could fly from Amarillo. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? I called them from Dallas before we rented the car to see if we could fly Southwest the next day, but all their flights were full. I never thought of driving to some other town and flying from there. Albuquerque airport was open, but all the flights from Amarillo were full. There were seats on an evening flight from Lubbock. We had driven through Lubbock earlier in the day, so we turned around, drove two and a half hours back, returned the car, bought Southwest tickets, and waited for the 6:45pm flight. We congratulated ourselves on our good fortune and common sense!

While waiting in the airport we talked to other people waiting for our flight. One couple had been stranded in Dallas the day before, like we were, but they had relatives in Dallas, spent the night with them, then flew Southwest from Dallas to Lubbock, hoping to fly from there to Albuquerque, because all direct flights from Dallas were full.

Fifteen minutes before boarding the flight was cancelled because of fog in Albuquerque. They only have one flight a day to Albuquerque from Lubbock and Sunday’s flight was full, so it was back to plan A – drive.

Back to Hertz, rented another car, checked into the Holiday Inn in Lubbock. New Year’s Eve in Lubbock – we were asleep by 11pm. The Holiday Inn was a welcome relief after the Super 8 in Sweetwater – clean sheets, comfortable bed, nice room. If we had driven the southern route, we would have been home for New Year’s Eve.

When we dropped the first car off before our Lubbock flight, we left our shampoo, water and snacks behind. We kept the other toiletries because we knew we could carry them on board (we had no luggage to check), but the shampoo bottle was too large for the current restrictions. When were back in the Hertz lot picking up the second car, we asked if they still had our “stuff” from the other car, and they did! They could not find the shampoo, but searched the old car and found it under the seat. Too bad we could not have just got the old car again (and the original rental agreement – would have been easier and cheaper).

We had a great night’s sleep and were on the road by 8:30am. I talked to a guy at the hotel who had flown the night before from Seattle to Albuquerque on Southwest, but they could not land because of the fog, so were rerouted to Lubbock. He was off to the airport to get a rental car and drive home.

From Lubbock we took country roads east to Clovis NM. Another McDonald’s breakfast in a small town along the way (this time they could not figure out our strange request – no meat on one, no meat and cheese on the other – are we the only people who do this? – so we peeled off the meat and thru it away). Another spectacular drive through wide open plains, turning into New Mexico high desert, small dusty towns, and decaying buildings. It was New Year’s Day, the roads were empty, the towns were empty, and it felt like we were the only people left at the end of the world, at least until we reached I-40 and rejoined humanity. Lots of humanity – the interstate was busy and now we were seeing snow on the ground. We drove on good roads for an hour, congratulating ourselves on the good decision to take I-40, and then saw that the traffic ahead was stopped.

Waiting on I-40

We spent two and a half hours creeping along for 30 miles. When the traffic was stopped, we talked to the trucker behind us and he told us what the delay was and how long it was. The truckers always know what is going on. The roads at Cline’s Corner, just east of Albuquerque were a mess – ice and lots of snow. Once we were through it, the traffic was back to normal.

As we approached Albuquerque, we were shocked by the amount of snow. Everything was white: the snow on the ground, the clouds in the sky.

From the car on I-40 near Albuquerque

We got to Albuquerque airport in the late afternoon, returned the car, and went to look for our luggage. The baggage claim area was full of rows and rows of luggage. There must have been thousands of bags, all neatly lined up on every available space. I found one of our bags immediately, but could not find the other.

We got in line and filed a lost luggage claim. The American Airlines staff at the counter were friendly, but obviously tired. Everyone in line had a story to tell and was in good humor. When a guy cut ahead in line and said “I have been waiting for 30 minutes for my luggage from my flight. Can anyone tell me why I am still waiting?”, we all laughed hysterically. Waiting for 30 minutes!! We had been waiting for two days!!

I did one last obsessive check through some of the rows on our way out and found our other small bag tucked away in a corner! Victory was ours! We picked up our car in the airport parking and drove the hour north to Santa Fe. The roads were good, but it was getting dark and those wet patches would be turning to ice soon.

We arrived home about the time we were originally scheduled, but two days later. I think we were better off driving than waiting in the airport or in Dallas to get on a flight. A friend was flying from Mexico, through Dallas, to Albuquerque just a few hours after us on that Saturday. His Albuquerque flight was not cancelled. He said there were hundreds of people in the Dallas airport and hundreds of people on standby for his flight, but only a few got on. Cots had been set up and people were settling in for the night. American told us they might put extra flights on the next day, but I did not find out if that happened.

If This Happens to You

If your flight is cancelled and it is not a busy holiday time, most likely you will be fine. Line up at the counter by the gate to speak to an agent. They will either reschedule you on the next flight with available seats or put you on the waiting list. You may have to wait for a few flights, but you will not be waiting for days. Ask for a voucher for a hotel if you have to spend the night. They don’t have to give you one if the flight is cancelled because of bad weather, but they might give a voucher for a discount. Ask for food vouchers. Again they don’t have to give them, but they might.

If it looks like you may have to wait days in the airport, consider booking with another airline (like Southwest) or renting a car and driving. You will not have any money refunded for the unused part of your ticket.

Don’t blame yourself or anyone else. Things happen. Make the best of a bad situation. Sometimes you get an unexpected fun adventure! This drive and the Salt Lake City to Santa Fe drive were wonderful experiences (with some tense moments for added spice). These two extra travel days were worth it just for the view of the ice crystals in Amarillo, even though that ice caused us problems.

If your flight is being diverted because of bad weather, use the restroom before you land. One flight sat on the runway in Austin for eight hours and the restroom situation was bad.

If you have a ticket to fly during one of these bad weather situations, you may be able to rebook at a later date with no change fees. I checked the American Airlines website and they were letting anyone with flights through Denver rebook after the first big storm. Most airlines did this.

Airline Policies

Each Airline has policies covering flight delays and cancellations. For most airlines, if the flight is cancelled because of weather, the airline does not pay for your overnight accommodation, but will book you on their next available flight (or put you on standby if the next flights are full). If the flight is cancelled because of mechanical problems, or for some other reason that is their fault, they should pay for at least part of your overnight accommodation.

To find out the policies for the airline you are booking with, go to their website and search on “delay cancellation”.

American Airlines – Customer Service Plan

Delta – Suspended Travel FAQs

Articles About the 2006 Christmas Holidays Storms

Dallas Airport, press release, “DFW International Airport Expects 2.9 Million Passengers During Christmas / New Year’s Travel Season”, December 21, 2006
“More than 2.9 million passengers will pass through DFW between December 18 and January 3, in a robust year that will close with more than 60 million total passengers.”

The Storm in Denver – December 21
The Denver Post, “Trapped passengers settle in at airport; some reach hotels”, December 21, 2006
“Blizzard conditions closed Denver International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, hopelessly delaying tens of thousands of holiday travelers. About 5,000 passengers were stranded at the airport Wednesday evening – many pitching camp on the rugs and stone floors of the cavernous terminal. “

The Denver Post, “Snowbound: Thousands stranded at airport, home”, December 22, 2006
“Denver International Airport announced this morning it won’t reopen until noon on Friday. Hundreds of stranded travellers were evacuated by bus to downtown hotels, but thousands remain, awaiting travel options, but without lodging alternatives.”

The Dallas Morning News, “Denver airport backlog could take weeks to clear”, Saturday December 23, 2006
“Officials opened two more runways Saturday at Denver’s airport after a two-day blizzard as airlines struggled to move thousands of holiday travelers stranded across the country.”

The Storms in Colorado, New Mexico and Texas – December 29
The Dallas Morning News, “Blizzard pounds Colorado, heads for Texas“, Friday December 29, 2006
“At Denver International, the nation’s fifth-busiest airport, the major airlines canceled 15 percent to 20 percent of their flights Friday morning — more than 300 departures — to ease congestion as the snow deepened.”

The Dallas Morning News, “Passengers stuck on plane over 8 hours. American rerouted D/FW-bound flight to Austin during storms”, Saturday December 30
“For more than eight hours Friday, passengers on American Airlines Flight 1348, rerouted from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport during Friday’s storms, sat on the tarmac at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport – with no food, dirty toilets and frustration levels rising.”

The Dallas Morning News, “American reconsiders its plan for stormy days. Fort Worth carrier is looking for better way to handle bad weather.”, Wednesday, January 3, 2007
“American canceled 435 flights that day (Friday), 426 of them because of bad weather. With many of its airplanes and crews out of place, American also canceled 158 flights on Saturday, 130 attributed to weather.”

Resources

AirportBug.org – Flight Cancellation Tips

The Budget Traveller’s Guide to Sleeping in Airports – Dallas/Fort Worth. Nothing about the 2006 winter travel season, but notes about sleeping in DFW airport.

Let’s Talk About It

Were you stuck in an airport during the 2006 Christmas season? Have a delayed/cancelled flight story? Tell us about it. Click the COMMENTS link below.

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.

3 thoughts on “I Thought I Would Never Get Out of West Texas”

  1. Loie and I have been “seriously” delayed twice, and annoyingly delayed several other times. Our first serious delay was, in all places, Albuquerque. I think it was a United flight that had some mechanical problem and was just arbitrarily canceled. We were sent back and forth on various wild goose chases to other airlines who never had any open seats, for a couple of hours. We were given meal vouchers for one of the airport restaurants, and eventually left on another United flight about six hours after we had been due to fly.

    There was just no help for that one: nothing could be done to get us on a flight when everything leaving for Dulles was full up. C’est la vie.

    On our second serious delay, though, we made a bad mistake, and people should be aware of what to do. Leaving Baltimore/Washington International Airport for London on Iceland Air, our flight was one of, if not the, last of the day. The plane that was to be our plane out developed a flat tire on landing. BWI is apparently too small an airport to have spare tires. And, because it was late in the evening, no spares could be procured: no flights from larger airports were due in. We would all be taken to an airport hotel for the night.

    Our first mistake: we accepted this. Dulles airport is only an hour away from BWI by bus or car. We should have demanded a flight out that night from Dulles.

    We were all told the Iceland Air office would not open until 2:00 pm the next day! Our second mistake: we waited until about noon the next day to go back to the airport. Many people had gone back at eight or nine and *were* being taken to Dulles to get on other flights. We, though, having politely waited were now too late.

    All available extra seats out of Dulles were taken. We did get on an Iceland Air flight later that day, but of course missed our connecting flight through Rejyavik. We therefore spent a wasted day in Iceland, and almost missed our private dawn visit to Stonehenge. (Made it to our self cater with three hours to rest before having to run to that, instead of a day and a half to rest and see the countryside. But we made it.)

    Conclusions: never be the last flight out of BWI; never just blindly accept what the ticket agents tell you. Be the politely squeaky wheel and stay in line! Don’t let them shuffle you off; hang in.

  2. Looks like I missed all the fun and snow! Twenty years in Albq. and I never saw anything like that! What an adventure for you and Steve. Glad you made it home safely after all that! 🙂

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