From Alabama to Colombia: Bad Trip

Travel Features Alabama

Oh, flew in from Miami Beach B.O.A.C.
Didn’t get to bed last night …

Back in the U.S.S.R.


Every sojourner, sooner or later, has a bad travel experience. The worst—and every other travel experience pales beside it—happens in the air at 30,000 feet, when the jet suddenly starts to tremble and tilt and make humpback whale noises and the flight attendants scream.

Nothing short of the first downward plunge of a roller coaster matches the feeling of a plane unexpectedly losing altitude. Sometimes passengers add colorful sphincter painting.

All other fails of travel seem to pale beside that one.

But still … when the magic of climbing into an airplane in one place and climbing out of it in another … maybe a place with real humpback whale noises and tiki torches and hula dancers … when that magic doesn’t happen and instead a traveler gets stranded in dirty snow in Akron … or left curbside in Miami overnight …

… well, let’s just say that not many disappointments match that of a travel dream deferred.


Strange things happen as I come and go to Colombia.

I have made four trips back to the States this year—each more memorable—the last two setting new personal standards for travel weirdness.

In May, Adela and I planned to leave Bogota to fly to New York. We were to be guests of Pens Parentis, the literary salon, at my first-ever NYC literary event, a reading with three big-deal writers in the private library of the original New York Times Building.

Our red-eye Delta flight should have taken off after 11 p.m. Instead, we waited on the runway. And waited.

After very long time, the pilot explained. It seemed that Bogota air traffic control had closed one of the two runways—the one that took off over this city of 11 million people late on Friday night. Officials banished late arrivals and take-offs as a noise abatement measure for the city.

All fine … except that the other runway took off toward the Andes. The very close Andes. The very close, very steep Andes.

For big jets to climb fast enough to jump the mountains, they need a certain maximum weight. If a headwind comes from the mountains, the weight needs to be 1,000 pounds less for every mile per hour the wind blows.

Our plane weighed too much. So during the long wait, the crew removed all onboard cargo … then all stowed luggage. When the plane still didn’t make weight, 30 passengers were asked off the jet.

Adela and I spent a charming night in El Dorado International Airport. We did catch a very early morning flight on another airline and reached NYC in time to have great adventures that made it all worthwhile.


My next travel fail, just this month, didn’t have such a happy ending.

I was ticketed to fly from Atlanta to Bogota. I had a 70-minute window to make a connection in Miami, to catch the last flight of the day to Colombia.

The meltdown started with bad weather in Chicago, of all places. Air traffic control shut down The Windy City. When my delayed jet arrived in Atlanta, we boarded quickly and flew like the wind, but to no avail. My connecting flight, Miami to Bogota, nosed into the heavens just as the wheels of my Atlanta flight touched Florida.

I deplaned and began my night of travel travail.

A gate agent smiled when I asked what hotel the airline would put me up in for the night, with the unforeseen flight delay and all.

Sorry, we don’t put passengers up when air traffic control causes delays. If it’s a mechanical issue, we’ll give you a hotel night. But you’re on your own this time … mister.

In a spasm of compassion, the agent did offer a discount voucher. I could claim a reduced-rate room … if one were available … at Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel.

Howard Johnson Hotel? Really? Do Howard Johnson hotels still exist? I dimly remembered the roadside attractions from the 1960s. They looked like something from The Jetsons.

Another HoJo memory. My Scots-frugal daddy once jerked the whole family of six McNairs up from a table in a HoJo and marched us out the door, outraged that any establishment had the gall to charge $.65 for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

We discovered Krystal burgers about a half-hour later, a dime each. You could get six Krystals for the price of one Howard Johnson PB&J. We marveled at that for years in the McNair house.

An agent directed me to the waiting area for the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel shuttle. I lugged luggage to the curb. Miami humidity soaked my shirt.

Shuttles from every conceivable inn and hotel passed by. Many passed by multiple times.

I waited a very long time. I was exhausted by now.

Finally, I stepped back inside to ask the Howard Johnson shuttle schedule.

Oh, that shuttle runs upstairs, smiled a happy agent in the baggage claim. If it’s still running this time of night.

I phoned. No, the Howard Johnson shuttle had stopped running an hour ago. Unlike all the shuttles for all the other inns and hotels in the world, it didn’t run this late at night.

I asked the price of a taxi to Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel – about $30. The McNair family could have bought 300 Krystal burgers with that money.

That’s when my phone ran out of battery.


I slouched back to curbside and rolled the dice. I boarded the very first shuttle, the words “Red Roof Inn” on its side.

It lumbered noisily through the airport complex, chugged briefly onto a highway, turned into the airport Red Roof Inn.

No rooms available.

Now, this weary traveler no longer even had airport furniture to ease an overnight strand. Somehow, I found just $10 in U.S. currency in my billfold. Not even enough for a taxi ride back to the airport.

I climbed back on the Red Roof Inn shuttle … and the nicest thing happened.

The driver offered to give me a lift to La Quinta Inn, just down the highway. For free. Out of kindness. He would break the rules of Red Roof Inn shuttle drivers worldwide. He would do it just for me.

Of course, if La Quinta had no room … what then?

“I’ll take you back to the airport and you can wait there for the night,” the kind shuttle driver offered.

Well, long story short: La Quinta did have one remaining room. Smoking. (I’m terribly allergic.) Kind of itchy inside. Free breakfast though.

I sneezed and honked into tissues all night. Not that it mattered. The jets flew directly over my hotel room, coming and going, chattering the water glass right off the bedside table.

Didn’t get to bed last night …

Dear reader, it happens. Sooner or later, travel unravels. It happened to me. It can happen to you.

The fun part comes when you get to tell others just how weird it really was.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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