How To Fly From Cleveland To Moscow on 5 Airplanes (and make a little cash on the way)

One of my favorite things about social media is my virtual friends whining about various travel travails such as flight delays.  And as we all know, flight delays are the worst.

So, I don’t blame my friends for whining.  But there was a time during the past 36 hours, that I remembered the Chilean miners.

You see, here’s what happened.  My family and I decided to surprise my parents for Christmas and show up on their doorstep.  Which was really a great time.  And yes, they were surprised:

But, of course, to surprise them, we had to travel with our four children from Moscow to Cleveland.  This is a much easier situation than it used to be since our children are now a bit older (13, 12, 9, and 7) and are fairly seasoned travelers.

We got a great deal on the tickets and our itinerary was Moscow – London – New York (JFK) -Cleveland.  Not as quick as the Moscow-JFK-Cleveland option, but cheaper, so definitely worth it.

So, we flew from Moscow to London on British Airways, and somewhat surprisingly this was the first time I ever flew that storied airlines or ever went to Heathrow.  In an effort to be culturally sensitive to the flight attendants, I asked for my tea with milk.

At Heathrow, we met American Airlines.  It’s also a curious point, that I don’t remember ever flying American Airlines until this particular trip.

Now to say that I hadn’t been warned about American Airlines would be incorrect.  You see, I have a good Russian friend, whom for the purposes of this blog, I will call Eugene.  Because that is his name.  You see, a couple months ago, Eugene fell into an American Airlines black hole and my Facebook and Twitter feed was littered with Eugene’s whining for days.

So, I was smugly sitting at home and chuckling at my friend Eugene.  And then I flew American Airlines.  And now, I will whine a bit about a travel story.

Our flight from London to JFK was actually quite nice.  A brand new airplane with great in-flight entertainment (for the kids) and kind flight attendants.  And food.  And I was surprised at how full the flight was, even after all of Eugene’s anti-American (Airlines) efforts on social media.

We didn’t have a very long layover at JFK, so we were relieved that we were met upon arrival with someone who handed us our onward boarding passes and also “Fast Lane” passes, so that we could get through passport control and security more quickly.

After jumping through those respective hoops, we went to the counter to check our bags for the aforementioned onward flight from JFK to Cleveland and were informed that our flight had been cancelled.  But there was no reason to fret because in only five hours there would be a flight from LaGuardia to Cleveland and we were being provided with a taxi and meal vouchers for $70.

My wife, whom for the purposes of this blog I will call Rachel, and I had a little chuckle about what morsels we would be able to procure for our offspring with a $70 meal voucher at an airport in New York City.  But here’s the thing: neither Rachel nor I had ever been to LaGuardia.

You know how airport architecture is supposed to give you the feeling of freedom, flight, and a nation that is pressing forward towards its destiny?  Well, at LaGuardia the architecture of hopelessness was somehow countered by my ability to jump and touch the ceiling.

I have been to many airports in many nations around the world.  And it is very hard to find an airport that is worse than LaGuardia.

If Joe Biden runs for president, he will win.  And part of the reason is that he is able to take on the real issues and describe the direction the United States is taking in a manner that reaches out to both sides of the aisle.  Here is his take on LaGuardia:

Actually, come to think of it, I think anyone could use “LaGuardia is a Third World Country” as their platform and become President of the United States of America.

Because LaGuardia isn’t like a Third World Country.  LaGuardia is a Third World country.  And the great thing about that is, if you have $70 in a Third World country that you must use for one meal, you won’t be able to eat it all.  And that’s exactly what happened to us.

The rule for an airport meal voucher is that you must use it in one place because they won’t give you change.  So, we went to the LaGuardia food court and found a nice Asian food eatery that had a special that included noodles (or rice) and two types of meat for $8.  Anyway, we could barely fit all of the food on our table, and we certainly couldn’t finish it.

We arrived in Cleveland about five hours behind what we had originally planned.

And if that was all that had happened, I wouldn’t have written this blog post and you would have never heard about it.  But then we had our return trip to Moscow:

In short, the return trip did not include a trip to a Third World Country, but it did include a tour of most of Europe, provided by 4 airlines.  And it ended about 36 hours after it started.

Which is only slightly longer than it will take for you to read the more detailed version:

It was Friday morning, when my wife (Rachel) and I, together with our four children were taken to Cleveland Airport.  From there, we had the very uneventful experience of an on time flight to New York City’s JFK Airport, which is really a very good representation of a transportation hub of the economic capital of the free world.

We had a three hour layover, but entertained ourselves with our various devices and also occasional strolls about the terminal with our offspring.

When it was time to board, the American Airlines lady picked up the microphone and explained that:

-“There has been a decision“.  If you’re from Akron, you know that is never a good thing.

-The airplane is in the hangar.  It can not fly.  There is another airplane.

-That is ALL I can tell you right now.

-Your flight is delayed from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

-Do not worry about your connections from London onward!  Once the flight takes off at 9 p.m. the system begins to work for you and work out your onward flights.

At this point, we knew that we would miss our connection from London to Moscow, but we had more pressing needs.  Such as our children’s blood sugar levels.  So, I began to scout the various fine eating establishments at JFK and quickly discovered that the cost of eating at JFK was somewhat higher than a nearby Third World Country.

But blood sugar levels are blood sugar levels.  So, our ravenous troop made its way to a nearby McDonald’s to spend our 7 year old’s college savings on 6 value meals.  The change of scenery was nice.  And my wife (Rachel) and our children entertained themselves by recapping Star Wars, including the big spoiler that nobody is supposed to discuss.  So, although I figured that financial recovery from this meal at McDonald’s would take our family some time, I was happy to note that I had saved myself the cost of a ticket to the movies, because I have no plans to watch Star Wars, and I know what happens at the end anyway.

We returned to the gate to see a team of men with large carts and several tables setting up a smorgasbord of fine sandwiches, drinks, and assorted snackery.

A couple quick fire questions to American Airlines:

  1.  Why does the system only begin to work for you AFTER you take off?  I’m sure your partner airlines really like that one.  Why not help folks be rerouted immediately when clearly 90% of the people on the airplane will not make their connections?  But I guess that’s not your problem.  Or is it?
  2. When you know that food would be provided, why on earth wouldn’t you announce that?  What could have made you sound really great (food is on the way!) just made you look terrible with everyone grumbling about how they just spent all of their money at the food court, so there was no room left for your sandwichery.

But, if only this had happened, I also would not have recounted the experience in a blog.

At around 10 p.m. our flight took off for London.  In the pilot’s own words, it was the bumpiest flight he could remember for a really long time.  And it was that way for most of the flight.

Travel Tip:  If you’re on a turbulent flight across the Atlantic and trying to digest food, don’t watch the movie Martian.  I didn’t finish it, because my “in-flight entertainment system” crashed froze and I couldn’t get it to work again.  But I assume Jason Bourne made it home.

The flight back to London is under 7 hours.  My wife (Rachel) was really surprised by this.  And I said, “it’s always faster to fly this way (west to east)”?  And in Rachel’s defense, we were already really tired at this point, and she asked if that was because of the earth’s rotation.  And I sneered and explained it was because of the wind not the rotation.  But then I spent the next hour and half wondering why using the earth’s rotation wouldn’t work (you could then make it to London in like 20 minutes), and then questioning whether it’s really round, etc.  We were tired.  That is all.

Upon arriving in London, while still taxiing around the runway, two passengers sitting next to me were tossing their cookies.  I won’t say who those passengers were, but we do have a new rule in our family that you must look out the window and not at screens while in a taxiing airplane.

In the terminal, we were met with eager ground personnel, who gave us our tickets to Frankfurt.  Once we took off from JFK, the system had been working for us!  “Really?  You’ve got to be kidding me!”, I politely inquired, in a British manner.  “Well, your other option is to take the 9 p.m. flight direct to Moscow,” explained the kind ground personnel, “but this way will be much faster.”

“Okay”, I said with a very obvious rolling of my eyes.  And we were on our way.  Happily, they also provided us with vouchers for breakfast, in the amount of sixty pounds sterling.  I don’t have time to figure out how much that is in dollars, but since the UK does not have the Federal Reserve, it’s way more than 60 dollars.

At this point, delirium was setting in, so as we were enjoying breakfast, courtesy of American Airlines, I began to babble excitedly:

-“Kids, don’t ever say I didn’t take you for an English breakfast in London!”

-“Kids, as we’re enjoying this fine breakfast courtesy of American Airlines, it’s time you learned the meaning of the phrase ‘Stick it to the man’!”

-“Kids, before this day is over, I guarantee you, we will be in more cities than just Cleveland, New York, London, Frankfurt, and Moscow!”

And at this point my swelling euphoria could not be contained by the snide and sarcastic remarks from my entourage, particularly from the 12 year old.  Especially, since the 13 year old was taking pictures of her breakfast.  Which means I totally made a slam dunk.

I had received explicit instructions from a fine English man, whose inexplicable occupation includes representing the interests of Lufthansa, on how to track my baggage.

At the departure gate to Frankfurt, I followed the instructions and made a “baggage query”.  The kind man used his walkie-talkie device to call a man in the Heathrow Underworld regarding our luggage situation.  He said that he needed to know the status of the baggage of “Frecka”.  As often happens in these situation, the man in the Heathrow Underworld didn’t quite understand our last name, so the man at the gate uttered the following phrase quite effortlessly:  “Foxtrot, Romeo, Echo, Charlie, Kilo, Alpha”.  Which I am totally going to work on memorizing for the next time I’m on the phone with a customer service representative.

And just as the doors to the plane were closing, all of our luggage to Frankfurt was confirmed.   Our flight to Frankfurt was smooth, German, and on time.  I must say that our 7 year old was beginning to experience some fatigue and despair, but our 12 year old (whom I will call Charlie) provided him with the encouraging word, “Don’t worry, this is our last flight, and then we’ll be home.”

At the departure gate to Moscow, I rounded up my male offspring for a trip to the water closet.  “Boys, we’re marking our territory worldwide today!”.

Upon returning to the gate, my wife (Rachel) said, “They’re asking if anyone is willing to fly via Zurich for 400 euros”, as if that was the worst.  

But I was already on my way to the counter.  I explained that I represented six passengers who were willing to fly via Zurich.  Sadly, they only needed two.  So, I returned to my merry band and explained that whoever was willing to accompany me to Switzerland would get 20 euros.  “How much is that in dollars?” they asked, as if 20 euros isn’t mad cash in their world, particularly for only a 4 hour delay in travel plans.

A negotiation process commenced, and when we reached the 25 euro threshold, Charlie said, “Well, if you’re willing to go, then I’m willing to go”.  This made me proud because I want Charlie to understand the value of a hard earned dollar.

The kind German lady at the counter explained that four bags would accompany my wife and 13, 9, and 7 year old, and two bags would accompany Charlie and me.  She also explained that I wouldn’t land in Moscow at Domodedovo airport.  I would land at Sheremetyevo.  Which is closer to where we live than Domodedovo.

So, Charlie and I waved good-bye to the rest of our beleaguered band and headed off to the nearest Lufthansa Service Center to cash our 800 euros of vouchers.  There was a Lufthansa employee on the way who mentioned that we certainly weren’t hitting the Powerball Jackpot, but if we didn’t know what to do with the money, we could do our best to remember where his desk is.  It was at this point we discovered that when it comes to cash boxes in Lufthansa Service Centers, there are the flughafens and the flughafnotens.  If you know what I mean. But at the third Lufthansa Service Center we hit money.

The Lufthansa employee who handled the payout asked Charlie what his cut was.  Charlie politely smiled.  Then the Lufthansa employee gave me a meaningful look and said that the smallest bill he had was 50 euro.  I was cornered and told him to give it to Charlie.

It was then that I mentioned to the man who had just handed me 800 750 euros in cash that my son and I were a bit famished, it would be more than an hour until our flight, and could we possibly trouble him for some meal vouchers.

The man said “oh yes, of course”, “here are your vouchers”, “they are for 10 euros apiece”, (PAUSE), “which is the starting base amount for a meal voucher”.  And I had the common sense to drop it and not negotiate for a higher voucher amount.

Charlie and I settled on sushi (his favorite).  We went about fifteen euros over our meal voucher limit, but we were awash in cash, and I had to keep the hired help happy.  If you know what I mean.

And we were on our way to Zurich.  It’s a 30 minute flight in which the Swiss flight attendants manage to politely hand everyone a drink with crazed Swiss speed and efficiency on what was somewhat of a largish plane for such a short flight.

We had only about 40 minutes in Zurich, so we were happy to discover that the Zurich airport is smaller than JFK, Heathrow, or Frankfurt.

At this point, I would be lying if I said I was not disappointed that they weren’t looking for anyone who would be willing to fly to Moscow via Stockholm, because I would have totally jumped all over that one.  Because Charlie and I had reached an air travel nirvana where we no longer felt the shackles of time and space.  We had no idea in the world where we were.  We didn’t care.  And we were ready to keep this show going indefinitely, for just a little cash.  Or at least until Monday when Charlie needed to get back to school and me to work.

In any case, no such riotous gaiety was afoot, so we made it on the airplane where the Aeroflot flight attendants fed us the entire way to Moscow.

And since Aeroflot has received a lot of flack over the years, I would like to say that it is my favorite airline in the world, has improved considerably over the past twenty years and its service is way better than its American competitors.  And the flight on Aeroflot was the most normal part of our journey.  Normal except for the part where I had a chicken and rice meal with caesar salad at 2 a.m., chased down by the accompanying muesli bar, which was then followed by coffee at 2:30 a.m. after having already eaten McDonald’s, complimentary snacks, a chicken meal (while watching part of “Martian”), an English breakfast, and sushi and Vietnamese noodles.  In my defense, I still have a German buterbrod in my carry-on for “just in case” that I have not yet consumed.

When we landed, a passenger sitting next to me, who shall remain unnamed, obediently followed the rule to look out the window.  I won’t say exactly what happened, except to say that the rule didn’t help, but we’re keeping it (the rule and the passenger) anyway.

Upon arriving at the Sheremetyevo baggage claim, Charlie and I were shocked and deeply saddened to learn that only one of our two bags had made it.  I called Rachel and she indicated that two of her four bags had arrived.

This wasn’t really a big problem, because the lady at lost luggage was thrilled to have a customer at 4 a.m.  She asked me to describe my lost bag.  I explained that I could not because my wife and I had become separated in Germany and we both had lost bags, and so, it was either a black bag with gray lining, a black bag with green lining.  Or a pink suitcase.  She then asked me to tell her what connections I had made during the journey.  And as I began listing, she looked both tired and a bit concerned that she was being pranked.  Somehow in my very dazed state at this point, the whole ordeal felt like a giant and unsolvable algebra problem which involved the hopeless pursuit of a hidden value.

So, after this 2016 trans-Atlantic flight Odyssey, I must say that I agree with my friend Eugene 100%:  I will never fly American Airlines ever again.*

And I also totally agree with my brother-in-law who says that “Getting there is not half the fun”.  He’s totally right.  It’s most of it.

*Unless they offer the lowest price to my chosen destination.

One thought on “How To Fly From Cleveland To Moscow on 5 Airplanes (and make a little cash on the way)

  1. Glad you finally made it home – and so glad that you could celebrate Christmas with both families. I hope you have your luggage by now. Please thank Rachel for sending the CD – I have sent it on to a future bro. rami

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