In April 2019, we were extremely delayed flying home on American Airlines from Martinique, eventually arriving home about 24 hours later than originally planned. Since Martinique is a French territory and therefore politically part of the European Union, that means that the EU’s flight compensation regulation EC 261/2004 applied to our situation. Based on the circumstances of our delay, we were entitled to $400 each. I submitted a claim to American Airlines and they gave us a few options. We could choose to receive the $400 each in cash or if we accepted flight vouchers with AA instead they would give us $600 each. Wanting more value to put towards future travel, we chose the vouchers.
We originally used these vouchers for flights to San Juan, PR for a cruise in March 2020. Of course, that month is when the world came to a grinding halt due to COVID-19, so our cruise was cancelled a few weeks prior to departure. We rebooked to another cruise in November 2020, so I had to call AA to change our flights. Initially, they weren’t going to let us make any changes to the flights because a voucher from an EC 261/2004 claim had been used. For a moment it looked like we were going to lose the voucher entirely and that we should have just taken the cash offer to begin with. After imploring them to use some common sense and consider the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, they relented and allowed us to make the change. I felt that another change to this reservation after that was probably not going to be allowed, so this cruise really needed to happen.
Of course, the cruise booked for November 2020 was then cancelled almost 2 months prior to departure. Luckily, by this point most airlines had adopted much more flexible change policies due to the pandemic. So, we were able to cancel our flight reservation and the value was transferred into a credit with a new expiration date. We were optimistic that we now had a new credit that was no longer associated with our EC 261/2004 claim. Now fast forward to a couple months ago. We needed to book flights for the trip that we took last week so that we used the credits before the expiration in October. We logged on to AA’s website and saw our credits waiting. However, we ran into errors on AA’s website while trying to redeem them for flights.
Immediately, I was concerned that somehow the EC 261/2004 claim was still tied to these credits and causing issues that might prevent us from using the credits. But I saw online posts from people stating that AA had not made it possible to redeem these COVID-related cancellation credits online and that you must call them to redeem. I called the reservations number and the wait time was expected to be many hours, so I chose the call-back option. Luckily, I found a Reddit post of someone mentioning they were able to call AA’s web technical support number to redeem the credits. We gave it a try and the wait was only 45 minutes before we were called back. They were able to book the flights and we were able to use the credit. If we had waited for the call-back from the original reservations number, it would have been 6 hours later.
I went to the trouble of providing this background information because it provides context into why we were flying on American Airlines for this trip. That will be more relevant toward the end of this post.
Anyway, for this trip we decided to spend a week at a Sandals resort in Barbados. We both really wanted to go to Europe this year, but the logistics of visiting multiple countries in Europe during the pandemic would have added too much risk of some kind of travel disruption (ironic given what happened anyway). So we chose to spend a week in one place. We booked a swim-up suite at the Sandals Barbados. Sandals has very flexible COVID-19 cancellation policies and also provides travel insurance at no extra cost. Also, we enjoyed our previous stay at Sandals in Montego Bay, Jamaica a while back, so we wanted to try another Sandals resort. Also, things at work this year have been stressful and spending a week at a beach resort was a really appealing option. Here is how it went:
- 08/07 – Flights to and arrival in Barbados: Refreshingly, our flights to Barbados were uneventful, even arriving early. For entry into the country, Barbados requires a negative COVID test result taken within 3 days prior to arrival. The requirement is worded like this: “Self-administered tests, rapid tests or home kits will not be accepted.” We got our tests at CVS, which were administered in the drive-through. The CVS nurse hands you a sealed swab, instructs you how to swab yourself, and observes as you do that. I assume the intent of this is to avoid possible transmission. We interpreted this as the CVS nurse administering the test even though we self-swabbed, so we did not expect any issues on arrival. Well, during arrival processing in Barbados the explicitly asked if we had self-swabbed or not. Even though a pharmacy administered the test, since we self-swabbed they would not accept that test. Accordingly, they performed a COVID test there at the airport and required us to quarantine in our room at Sandals until the test came back negative.
- 08/08 – Quarantined in Room: As far as quarantines go, this was probably as good as it gets. Our room had a patio with swim-up pool, so even during our quarantine we were permitted to use the pool directly in front of our room. For meals, room service is included anyway, so we ate meals al fresco at the table on our poolside patio. This was just a minor inconvenience. I can’t really fault the country of Barbados for their policies, since their rate of infection on a per capita basis is around one tenth that of the US. They are taking this seriously and the numbers show it’s working. Perhaps the distinction between self-administered and self-swabbed tests could have been communicated better, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Anyway, at 1pm we received email confirmation of our negative test and were released from quarantine. We were finally able to enjoy the resort.
- 08/09 through 08/13 – Relaxing Days at Sandals Barbados: I should actually have said resorts. Because the Sandals Barbados resort is adjacent to the Sandals Royal Barbados resort and we had access to both during our stay. I don’t know why they don’t just call them the same resort. Most days we spent the mornings relaxing on the beach, the afternoons around our swim-up pool or another pool on the resort, and the evenings having a nice dinner at one of the 12 restaurants on resort. One aspect in particular that I enjoyed is that we were located right next to the final approach path of aircraft arriving in Barbados. Something we hadn’t anticipated was the Barbados whistling frogs (more on that in this post). A couple days before our planned return, Sandals provided the COVID test required for re-entry into the US.
- 08/14 – Travel Shenanigans Ensue: Our time at Sandals was relaxing and enjoyable. However, it is almost as if fate required a sacrifice as recompense for our good travel-fortunes so far and the following travel related comedy of errors commenced.
- 11:00 AM AST: We checked out of our room and had an hour to kill before our transfer to the airport. The concierge told us there was a departure lounge we could utilize and that they would have our bags stored there and retrieve us for the transfer bus to the airport. We went to the departure lounge and neither guests nor staff were there. Nothing was set up to make it look like a lounge and it appeared like it was actually a storage room. Furthermore, our bags weren’t there and I assume no one would have been retrieved from there to be taken to the transfer bus. We assumed that we were supposed to just wait at the entrance near the front desk, where we did find other guests and our bags waiting. The process between check out and the transfer to the airport was both badly communicated and poorly executed by Sandals.
- 12:00 PM AST: The transfer from Sandals to the airport was completed without incident. We checked-in, cleared security, ate lunch, and waited for our flight.
- 03:12 PM AST: Our flight to Miami was scheduled to depart at this time, however boarding was proceeding at a glacial pace. In Barbados, there are no jetways; you embark/disembark the aircraft from the apron using stairs. Also, the gate we were departing from was not adjacent to our aircraft. This seems to be common practice there as they have buses to move passengers to the remote stand where the aircraft actually is. It turns out that there was a shortage of available buses to move us to our aircraft, which delayed our boarding process considerably.
- 04:01 PM AST: The flight to Miami finally departed 49 minutes late, introducing some doubt in making our connection as this delay ate up 40% of our connection window. However, briefly after takeoff the flight crew notified us that our aircraft had a minor flight control issue. After some time they stated that we would have to divert to San Juan, PR where they could have maintenance look into it. At this point, our connection in Miami was doomed. Since we would be landing over the maximum landing weight they had to technically declare an emergency. Nothing extreme, but it is the standard procedure for this situation.
- 05:53 PM AST: Landed in San Juan. It was a firm landing but still felt like they had things under control. We taxied to a gate, but they kept us all on the plane. The plan was to have maintenance have a look and either fix it or confirm that it is not a problem so that we could continue on that same aircraft to Miami.
- 08:00 PM AST: After a couple hours of troubleshooting, they decided the fix was going to take too long, so they wanted to move us to another plane to complete the flight to Miami. However, to this point we were still an international flight that was technically in-transit. That means that all 165+ people on the flight had to clear US customs and immigration in San Juan before we could continue. We have global entry so we were through customs in a matter of minutes. However, there was a problem with the baggage carousel after customs. It seems the ground crew was able to offload all the baggage much quicker than the flight crew was able to get permission to disembark the plane. So, the bags had filled the entire carousel to the point that the remaining bags could not come out yet. Our bags had not yet emerged. Even though we breezed through customs past everyone, we had to wait for people to claim their bags. Once most bags were removed from the carousel, there seemed to have been a malfunction that prevented it from sending more bags up. After waiting here about 45 minutes, we finally retrieved our bags.
- 08:45 PM AST: Before we could proceed, our bags had to undergo USDA APHIS screening. This is required by the government so that certain agricultural products from Puerto Rico aren’t brought to the mainland US. Our bags had to undergo this screening even though they hadn’t even left the airport and had only officially been in Puerto Rico for a matter of minutes. You gotta love seeing US bureaucracy in action. After that, we waited in line to re-check our bags and get our new boarding passes. Since we had left the secure area, we had to re-clear security. We have TSA Precheck, but of course the Precheck line was not operating. Once we finally cleared security we made our way to the new gate to wait until boarding. I am not sure if it was a function of the late hour or that tropical storm Grace was approaching Puerto Rico, but the airport in San Juan was like a ghost town. None of the shops or restaurants were open.
- 11:37 PM AST: We had been waiting at the gate a long time. They notified us that the replacement aircraft also had a maintenance issue that would prevent us from using it. They moved us to another gate where we would wait on a third aircraft to deplane so we could use it.
- 08/15 – Travel Shenanigans Continued:
- 01:05 AM AST: Around 7 hours after landing in San Juan, we finally departed. Our “flight from Barbados to Miami” was continuing on as a domestic flight.
- 03:23 AM EDT: More than 11 hours after departing Barbados, our flight arrived in Miami. We exited the plane and got in a very long line for rebooking.
- 05:45 AM EDT: After standing in the rebooking line for about 2 hours, we finally got to the front of the line and were next to be served. Inexplicably, one by one, each agent in the rebooking center just left their post. Perhaps their shift was over. But they left without any communication. No apology. No explanation that more agents would eventually be coming. Nothing. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to stay at your post until your replacement relieves you? To us it looked like American Airlines was deserting us. Extremely poor customer service. While we were waiting for the replacement agents we hoped were coming, this crazy lady cuts the entire line and bothers everyone in sight. Like a cross between Mr. Bean & Tom Hanks in The Terminal except she speaks no English. When an agent finally arrives about 15 minutes after the others deserted us, this lady gets on a face time call with someone who can translate for her and demands help from the agent. Once another agent arrives that can speak Spanish, the agent passed the crazy lady off to her and finally rebooked our flight. We were confirmed on a flight that night around 9pm and were put on standby for a flight 3 hours earlier. The agent claimed that our bags would make it on the plane with us if we made the standby flight. Also, we were given meal and hotel vouchers.
- 07:00 AM EDT: We ate breakfast, which was our first real meal since lunch in Barbados the day before.
- 08:15 AM EDT: Regarding the hotel voucher we received during rebooking, we went to catch the shuttle to the hotel to shower and get some rest before continuing our journey. When the shuttle stopped, the driver stated that the hotel was full. They gave us a voucher without checking to see if the hotel was full. Brilliant. We had no interest in standing in line again to get a new voucher. Instead, we have Priority Pass, which gives us access to some airline lounges. We re-cleared security and went to the Turkish Airlines lounge, which has showers we wanted to use. It turns out they have closed their showers due to COVID-19. So, we just rested in the lounge until we went to eat lunch.
- 05:35 PM EDT: We went to the gate of the standby flight to await our fate. We were first and second on the standby list, so our chances were pretty good. As it turns out, we made the flight along with 2 other people behind us on the list.
- 06:52 PM EDT: We finally departed Miami.
- 08:03 PM CDT: Mercifully, we arrived in Nashville. Despite what the agent in Miami claimed, our bags did not make the flight with us. They arrived on the later flight on which we had confirmed seats. So, before we could go home we had to visit the AA baggage claim office to arrange home delivery of our bags the next morning.
That was quite the experience getting home. Our next trip is in October to a Sandals resort in St. Lucia. Luckily, we fly Delta and not American. Anyway, I’ll post the link to the pictures once I’ve finished processing them.