Christmas in Spain 2019 – Day 2-2.5: Vancouver to Madrid

Now we’re really traveling. This is the real deal. Whenever you’re traveling and somehow, through the magic of time zones you journey for one day but it ends up being two, you know you’re really traveling. This was a long day of travel so make yourself comfortable, maybe grab a coffee (or something stronger) and settle in for a bit of a long read…

Our day started with the obnoxious blaring of the iPhone alarm at 5:15am… actually it was a pretty gentle beeping at low volume but I swear the Apple engineers somehow manage to make every single sound – no matter how pleasant it might sound in the gentle light of day – sound like an air raid klaxon going off when it’s your chosen alarm tone… There’s going to be a lot of travel related stuff in the post but I want to make sure the Abercorn Inn gets a shoutout. This is a seriously comfortable hotel if you’re on your way to/from the Vancouver airport. We slept very soundly and comfortably… and, wonder of wonders, we were neither too warm nor too cold… Because, it didn’t register with us at first but in the morning we noticed it – the Abercorn Inn doesn’t seem to have a central heating/air conditioning system. Each room is its own little paradise of coolness or heat depending on your individual desires… and if, like me, you’re not a huge fan of the recycled, stale air that most massive hotels seem to generate with their massive HVAC systems… you’re not breathing in the fetid funk of hundreds of guests… There’s nothing like waking up with clear sinuses!

Okay. Enough about the relative merits of self-contained hotel rooms versus massive soulless housed of the damned, let’s get traveling!

Marie set a new record for “putting on her face” this morning (that’s what apparently can happen when you only bring one flat iron that has an adaptor that can only be used outside of Canada) and we were in the lobby a couple minutes before our 6am shuttle to the airport. The hotel doesn’t have their breakfast up and running at that time but does make sure there’s coffee… Our shuttle arrived precisely at 6 and we, along with a couple of other guests, were soon on our way. We made a quick stop at another hotel to pick up a couple of other passengers and were at the Vancouver Airport pretty much bang on our 6:30am target. No fuss, no muss… thank you Abercorn Inn.

At the Airport Marie and I somehow managed to take that perfect start to the day and screw it all up right from the get go… We’d checked in for our flights online and had managed to select our seats for the Air Canada leg from Vancouver to Newark but, as has often been the case with trips we’ve booked using RBC Avion points, while we were able to check-in for the TAP Portugal legs of our trip, we couldn’t change our seat selections… unless we wanted to pay $115 EACH! to move 3 rows up from where they’d assigned us seats… So we needed to talk to an Air Canada ticketing agent and see if they could help us… So we promptly walked the entire 3.5 km (I exaggerate… but at 6:30 in the morning with packs on, it felt like it) from the international departures area to domestic only to be told we should have turned right when we got into the airport… Oops… So we trudged back the way we came, noticed the correct signage this time and made our way to the Air Canada check-in counter… where the smiling and friendly agent told us he couldn’t help us at all… no surprise. We’d have to talk to someone at the TAP Portugal counter in Newark… I think he was so taken with my name (I’ve never understood why my parents chose to name me after Kirk Douglas… mom? dad? feel free to weigh in any time on that one!) and the fact that he’d had friends named Doherty when he was a kid that he missed the fact we were only checking in one bag… or maybe it was our fault… it’s 6:30 in the morning… people should not make decisions at that time of day… in any case, he was not as happy and smiling when he had to start the whole baggage check thing over again…

We dumped Marie’s bag onto the conveyor belt, said a small prayer in hopes that we might see it again sometime (as things turned out we should have included a ritual sacrifice or something) and headed for security. We breezed through security with no problems… There were no repeats of last year’s “we found a tube of mascara that’s wasn’t in Marie’s clear liquids bag so we’re going to make Kirk unpack his bag because somehow that all makes sense to us” debacle. Marie did manage to trigger some kind of alarm in the body scanner though and received a pretty thorough breast exam as a result. Apparently she was still triggering some kind of alarm after the thorough groping, pat down and wanding… but they let her through anyways…

After security we entered the US Customs pre-clearance zone (because our flight lands in New Jersey and we will be spending a whole one hour and 19 minutes there we must be admitted to the US… again, I’m sure this makes sense to people with more degrees than I have but really?). It’s very similar to the system in place when we return to Canada – you go up to a kiosk, scan your passport, answer a couple of questions, it takes a picture… Marie got quite a kick out of the fact that a) the camera is positioned for someone about 3’ tall which required me to contort like a Cirqe de Soleil performer to get my face in the field of view (it never occurred to me to take a step or two backwards) and b) it does this weird long pause, then a 3 second countdown, then sets off a massive strobe directly in your face… I just managed to get my face back in the field of view before the strobe fired so somewhere in the annals of Homeland Security there is a spectacularly awesome photo of yours truly… Receipts, passports, boarding passes and tattered dignity in hand we shuffled through the next checkpoint (where they make sure you have a receipt) and entered the line to speak with a customs agent… The one directly in front of us completely lived up to the other US customs agents we’ve encountered on our travels… He was so cranky Marie said she was going to pass if he ended up being the agent we needed to talk to… We ended up getting an agent who completely defied every stereotype of US customs agents we’ve ever encountered – she was friendly, happier than anyone has a right to be at 7 in the morning and seemed genuinely pleased that we weren’t going to be flying American Airlines out of Newark because she did that once and it was awful… She also doubled over laughing when I asked Marie if she had the code to get through the locked door she was sort of staring at and wondering why it wasn’t opening (the RESTRICTED ACCESS stencilled on it should have been a clue but…)

We left US customs laughing but also, if we’re being honest, fully and completely aware that there are many, many people who travel every day who don’t leave the US – or Canada for that matter- Customs laughing… there is no doubt that traveling as affluent, middle-aged, white folks offers a very different customs and security screening experience than many others receive.

After security and customs, we wandered to our gate area and settled on Tim Hortons for our breakfast… I had a bit of Tim Hortons issue a while back (I swear they put something addictive in their Iced Caps…) so have sworn off eating there unless we’re traveling… So it’s been exactly one year since my last trip to Tims… It was not worth waiting for. We ran into our friend Ricardo who was flying on the same Vancouver – Newark flight as us… When one of your friends shows up with a mini-bottle of Jack Daniels for your morning coffee, you know that he is either a person of great worth and integrity or he thinks you have a drinking problem… Let’s go with the former shall we… We also grabbed a couple of sandwiches from Tim’s because Air Canada doesn’t provide free meals on flights within North America anymore and we probably wouldn’t have time to grab anything in Newark…

We made our way to the Air Canada departures gate and milled around with the rest of the herd waiting to board the plane. It all went surprisingly smoothly and we were soon comfortably (a bit of a stretch but not much actually) seated and settled in for our just over 5 hour flight to Newark. If you have never flown on one of the 787 Dreamliners, you’re definitely missing out… Air travel is not something I will ever really enjoy but travelling on these planes is actually pretty darn comfy… They’re very spacious feeling due to the arrangement of the overhead bins and they are substantially quieter than any other plane we’ve flown on. Air Canada’s staff was efficient and friendly and the flight passed pretty quickly and comfortably. We encountered a few pockets of mild turbulence but other than that it was literally smooth sailing… or flying rather…

We landed in Newark pretty much right on schedule and entered into the controlled chaos that is Newark Airport. We had approximately one hour to make our TAP Portugal flight to Lisbon and pretty much every bit of online information I’d gleaned about this part of the trip was not accurate. Thankfully we did not need to collect Marie’s checked bag. But there is no Star Alliance shuttle from Terminal A to Terminal B – you get on the Air Train like everyone else. It takes about 3 minutes to get to Terminal B. There are no Star Alliance staffers evident anywhere… You cannot stay on the screened side of the airport so you must go back through security like everyone else (thankfully the line was pretty short). It is an exercise in barely controlled chaos… One agent is telling people to leave their shoes on. Another is making you take them off. One guy is telling you to take all the food out of your bags. Others say nothing about food… We ended up in a line where shoes came off and food stayed in and we didn’t trigger any warnings (no extra boob groping for Marie this time).

We’d been concerned about the short layover – and if anything had gone wrong at security or we’d stopped to pee or made a wrong turn we’d have had issues… But the stars aligned correctly and we arrived at the TAP gate with about 15 minutes to spare… only to find out that our flight had been delayed by at least 30 minutes… Not great news when we only have a 90 minute layover in Lisbon for the next flight but pee breaks for everyone! We also got paged to the check in counter because apparently we weren’t actually checked-in (despite having boarding passes and everything). Because things were a bit chaotic, we tentatively asked if there was any chance we could change our assigned seats because the Air Canada agent hadn’t been able to and we had not been able to online… The TAP agent was not rude precisely but her response was basically “why? you’re sitting together…” When we suggested that something a bit further forward might be preferable it became clear that being seated together was no small accomplishment and we should take what we got… So we slunk away from the counter with our new boarding passes and found a place to hunker down and wait…

The 30 minute delay ended up being over an hour. Which led to the perennial air travel question… why do people line up to board their flight? You have an assigned seat. Getting on first just means you sit in your cramped seat longer. And get smashed in the face by other people’s bags more often… I’m not saying you want to be the last person on the plane but there doesn’t seem to be any real advantage to boarding early… If I was one of the first class or premium passengers I’d want my perk to be that I get to board last… Regardless, people stayed lined up to board for the entire hour long delay… We sat and waited, joined the line at the last minute and boarded before over 50% of the people who’d been standing in line for an hour… because most airlines now board by zone and the peons – such as us – sitting at the back of the plane board before the people seated in the forward zones… even if they’ve been standing in line for an hour… We settled into our considerably less comfortable seats (no Dreamliner for us this flight) and were soon on our way to Lisbon – just over 6 hours away. Given that we had just eaten up most of our 90 minute scheduled layover in Lisbon, making our flight at this point was anybody’s guess.

We were fed and watered on this trip. Caitlin could have warned us that the only booze options would be wine – and wine… Marie was not amused. I found the white wine wasn’t bad… The food was edible. It wasn’t the worst airline food we’ve ever had. It wasn’t at all close to the best we’ve had either. This was our overnight flight so we were supposed to grab some shuteye but that never really happened. I closed my eyes for about an hour until Marie’s 10,000 candlepower spotlight woke me up… I will admit, I was a bit grumpy because of it… Marie has this weird (she’ll take exception to the choice of adjective here but…) travel thing she does where she stores up months worth of free magazines from home, crams them into her carryon bag (it ends up weighing about 200 pounds as a result) and then reads them on the flights and leaves them behind for the next passenger (because they want to read a free natural foods magazine from Victoria). Apparently she couldn’t sleep so was making her way through the stack with the mother of all reading lights lighting up a third of the airplane… She graciously (wisely) turned it off when I asked but then tried to read with her iphone light… which resulted in this weird strobe light effect every time she tried to turn the page… which elicited a less than amused response from me… Eventually she gave up and read by the reflected light of the person behind us who was afraid of the dark I think because they just had the overhead light on for ambience or something… like I said, I was a bit grumpy.

Marie eventually gave up and tried to grab some shuteye and we sort of drifted in and out for an hour or so until the flight attendants started handing out “breakfast” – a ham and cheese bun with a granola bar. It made our soggy Tim Hortons sandwiches from the previous flight seem downright gourmet in comparison. Marie chose to continue trying to get some sleep rather than eat hers… a solid choice in my opinion. In all, this was not the worst flight we’ve ever had but it was decidedly less comfortable than the Air Canada flight we’d been on. And the length was a bit off for an overnight flight – it was long enough to get a bit unpleasant but not long enough to get any decent sleep… There’s a reason this particular combination of flights was quite a bit cheaper than the other options…

We managed to make up a bit of the delay along the way (the pilots must have received the okay from head office to burn a little extra fuel in return for speed) but things were not looking good for making our connecting flight. We were not the only ones worrying about making connecting flights and we heard the attendants telling quite a few people that they’d need to check with staff on the ground once we landed.

As it turned out, we landed with about 35 minutes to make our next flight – and we needed to go through both customs and security screening when we landed. Not impossible but daunting for sure. We waited anxiously while the hordes of people in front of us (we were seated 6 rows from the back of the plane) fiddled with their jackets, corralled their children and otherwise took their sweet effing time getting off the !*^!@&^# plane. C’mon people… learn to deplane with alacrity or stay seated… if the people in front of you have reached the front of the plane before you’ve collected your carryon bag and put your jacket on, you’re doing it wrong… It wasn’t that long before we deplaned… although the old couple in front of us who had to put their jackets on, then do an extra thorough check of their seats, then fiddle with their suitcases before leisurely making their way to the front of the plane were obviously not worried about making a connecting flight…

Once out of the plane and on the ground, the magic started to happen. Unlike the chaos of Newark – where no staff were present at all to assist in making the short turnaround, TAP has clearly done this before and had orange-vested staffers calling out “Madrid 705” every 100 metres or so to collect those of us most in danger of missing our next flight and get us where we were going. It was a truly awesome display of customer service. We – along with four or five other “Madrid 705 passengers” were met just before customs and whisked around the absolutely massive line (it would have been over an hour to get through that horde) of people waiting to clear customs. We definitely received our share of really dirty looks as we were inserted into the front of the line… After customs we were met again right at security and whisked in front of everyone else again… This was a bit chaotic as we had about 70 seconds to go through the full security screening (shoes off, body scan, liquids and gels out, etc) process… Marie’s pack triggered some sort of alarm and it was sent through the secondary screening line but was handed back to her without any additional inspection. Marie had forgotten to empty her water bottle before entering security and they even passed her through without making her empty it… I wish I’d know that before guzzling the half litre of water in my bottle… We were met again right after security and grouped together with yet another orange vested TAP staffer – while literally hopping on one foot trying to get our shoes back on. Then it was a foot race through the Lisbon airport… We followed the orange vest this way and that with Marie hobbling (remember she’s still limping pretty hard after breaking her leg 10 months ago) along with the fastest of us… About half way, we were passed off like the baton in a relay race to the next orange vest and the race continued. We were met at the gate by a couple of TAP counter agents who were clearly waiting for us and were sitting in our seats (right at the very back of the plane but it’s only an hour long flight so who cares right…) with about 10 minutes to spare. One more group of passengers joined us 5 minutes later and the plane was buttoned up and departed basically right on time… And that is what happens when you have a passenger bill of rights that penalizes airlines for flight delays methinks… It was a truly exceptional display of efficiency, coordination and communication. Well done TAP Portugal.

By this point we’d kind of entered that fugue state you achieve after a long day of air travel and just sort of zoned out for the short flight from Lisbon to Madrid. The flight attendants handed out a “light meal” (it was a 2” piece of carrot cake soaked in sugar syrup) and we made the long descent into Madrid pretty much exactly on schedule. We disembarked pretty quickly and made our way to the luggage carousel to claim Marie’s checked bag… Not surprisingly. It was not there. Nor were any of the bags for the rest of the people who’d hustled through Lisbon with us… Again, not really surprising given the incredibly short turnaround… Or maybe, it’s actually Air Canada’s fault and our bag never made it out of Vancouver…

So technically, this entry is supposed to keep going until the end of our first day in Madrid but it’s gotten way too long… And I’m starting to get hungry… so I’m going to leave off here… We’ve arrived in Madrid and we’re standing in line at the Lost Luggage counter with a few other folks and it’s been just over 20 hours since we woke up in Vancouver…

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