From the outset our travel arrangements to reach Turkey’s Mediterranean coast were complex. According to our initial itinerary, it would take four flights, a long shuttle, and about 24 hours to cross the 7,000+ miles from San Francisco’s International Airport to Fethiye Turkey. (Fethiye is pronounced Fĕh-Tē-ā.) By the plan, we’d arrive in Fethiye a comfortable 21 hours before our chartered cruise was due to depart. The original plan seemed arduous. In practice it was worse, much worse than we figured. Sometimes the journey is the destination. This was not one of those times.
Soon after we booked our flights, Turkish Airlines set about complicating things. Without notification or good reason they changed our final flight segment to a later flight. When we called to arrange seats we were told that our new flight would arrive at the Dalaman airport near one in the morning. After a shuttle through the Turkish countryside we could expect to reach Fethiye near two. A couple of weeks after booking our trip we were already delayed by four hours.
Things only got worse with Turkish Airlines. About a month later we learned that TA canceled the late flight that they had rescheduled us on. We were now set for a 6:55 am flight from Istanbul to Fethiye. Our new schedule would put us in Dalaman after eight in the morning the following day. We’d arrive twelve hours after the original plan and nine hours before our gulet’s departure. Grumbling and complaining to United and Turkish Airlines didn’t help. They would not change us back to the original flight even though there were plenty of seats showing as available. (Does flying using frequent flyer miles mean that airlines must abuse you at will?) In any event, it seemed there was no choice. We would spend the night at the Istanbul airport rather than in Fethiye.
Turkish Airlines continued to mess with our schedule with numerous flight time changes for our returning flights. (We learned to constantly check our flight schedule, as we were never notified of the changes even when they moved the departure time forward.) Not that it mattered. Indeed, Turkish Airlines pre-departure failings were irrelevant once United Airlines got into the mix.
United Airlines is suffering under the merger with Continental. This was clear immediately when we arrived at the airport in San Francisco and found our flight delayed by a late arriving crew. And it continued from there. Six would be passengers had been booked into row fourteen on our plane. Normally that would not be a problem but this time it was; there was no row fourteen on the aircraft. All told we were delayed an hour and forty minutes as the mess was sorted out. We’d arrive at the gate at Washington-Dulles with twenty minutes to make our connecting flight to Germany. There was little chance that our checked bags would join us on the way to Frankfurt.
“Good thing we packed the extra clothes in the carry-on,” I told Becky as we charged through the airport to the gate for our Frankfurt flight.
It was the first time we’d packed copious extra cloths in the carry-on just in case our bags were lost.
At least we made the next flight. Not that it mattered. After the jet’s doors were closed our United flight to Germany was delayed. According to the pilot, there was a minor mechanical issue that did not impact the operation of the aircraft. The pilot just needed to complete some paperwork before we departed. Somehow this minor issue cascaded into a delay of two hours. Not only would our bags miss the flight but also we would not arrive in Frankfurt in time for our connecting flight to Istanbul.
When we arrived late in Frankfurt our travel problems began in earnest.
Quickly we learned that Turkish Airline’s computers do not communicate well with those of its Star Alliance partners. We were forced to exit through immigration to attempt mediate a ticket between the United and the TA sales desks. We had no success. Turkish Airlines and its Star Alliance partners were at war. United and Turkish Airlines were sending volleys of stranded passengers back and forth between their sales desks. According to the Turkish Airline’s personnel, our flight arrangements were not their problem; according to the rest of the Star Alliance partners, it was Turkish Airline’s problem. We were told that TA’s computer system was not compatible with the rest of the Star Alliance.
Eventually we went back to the United desk where we learned that all of the direct flights to Istanbul that they could book were full for the next three days. Indeed, the United agent could not find a connecting flight to Istanbul through any city in Western Europe that would get us there in time.
Eventually she came up with a plan. We’d depart on a flight from Frankfurt in a couple of hours and fly five hours east to Dubai on Emirates Airlines. In Dubai the next morning, we’d take another flight and fly three hours west back to Istanbul just in time for a connecting flight to Fethiye. With luck we’d reach our boat before its scheduled departure.
The agent printed the boarding passes to Dubai and Istanbul. We waited for Turkish Airlines to confirm the last leg from Istanbul to Dalaman.
It seems every time we have to reschedule a flight mid-journey there is drama. The agent can’t find a reasonable rerouting option. The agent’s shrugs suggest that will be stuck in some foreign airport seemingly forever. Then suddenly a solution is found and things are OK. The behind the scenes reasons for the change are rarely apparent. Out of the blue, as if by magic, our journey is allowed to continue.
The reason in this case for the sudden change was apparent. In the process of trying to confirm the last leg of our new itinerary the hamsters turning the wheels inside the Turkish Airline’s computer system suddenly spit out approvals for both the last leg and an earlier reservation request for next morning’s flight from Frankfurt to Istanbul. Did firing volleys of passengers back and forth between TA and United desks have an impact after all?
The new plan was simple. We’d spend the night at an all too familiar hotel near the Frankfurt airport. The next morning we’d wake early and depart on a Turkish Airline flight to Istanbul. Our connecting flight to southern Turkey would get us to the boat in time. Our luggage, it seems, would not be with us. The United Airline agent confirmed what we had expected; our bags did not make the connection at Dulles.
The next morning we woke early as planned. Since we would be out of Internet connectivity for some time, we decided to make flight reservations for an upcoming trip. (Ironically, traveling United Airlines for this new trip was an even bigger disaster than the travel debacle we were in the midst of.) We thought we had plenty of time but after struggling with the reservation system we looked up and realized that our flight to Turkey left in 50 minutes. For some reason, we mistakenly thought that we had already received boarding passes. We had incorrectly figured that we just needed to get to the gate before the end of the boarding call.
Quickly gathering the carry-on bags we rushed to the hotel’s shuttle bus. We arrived at the terminal 30 minutes before the flight. It was twenty minutes too late. We’d missed our flight to Istanbul. Further, Turkish Airlines canceled our seats on all of our subsequent flights including our return journey. This last detail complicated our remaining travels.
At the airport the Turkish Airline’s sales desk was predictably caustic and of no help. We retreated to the United Airline’s desk and requested mercy. Fortunately United would help us even though the missed flight was our fault this time. After the usual pause for the prescribed period of drama, the agent, perhaps with a more complete knowledge of the geography of Western Europe and the Star Alliance routes, found connecting flights through Athens Greece. We now had reservations for seats on Lufthansa and Aegean flights. These flights would get us to Istanbul. United was also able to reschedule our Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to the Dalaman International Airport near Fethiye. Another lap between the Lufthansa and United desks was needed before we had boarding passes. Soon enough we were at the gate waiting for the Lufthansa flight to Athens Greece, a place we’d never been.
At the departure lounge, the gate agent announced that the flight was full and the overhead storage on the plane was limited. She requested that larger pieces of cabin baggage be checked. We must have been dizzy from our travels as we complied. Our carry-on bag that we had so cautiously packed with enough cloths to get us through a week on the boat was now in Lufthansa’s hands. The carry-on was checked through to Istanbul. This was a mistake. Our layover in Athens Greece was a mere 35 minutes. If things went perfectly it was dicey that our all-important last remaining bag would join us in Istanbul. Travel fatigue must have overwhelmed us; we were making a lot of mistakes.
And of course our Lufthansa flight was delayed. This time the delay was short, about twenty minutes. But now our connection was seriously impinged. It seemed that our next change of underwear would occur in a week, if we were lucky.
On arriving in Athens we were called to an agent. The agent escorted us across the length of the airport through immigration and customs and directly onto our next plane. We boarded. The jet door was immediately closed behind us. In less than fifteen minutes after our arrival in Athens we were in our seats for our flight to Istanbul. There was little hope that our checked carry-on bag had made the transfer. We started with three bags; now it seemed we’d have none. Since we’d be sailing around the Mediterranean out of contact with land, it was likely that we wouldn’t see our stuff again for another week. But at least Becky and I now stood a decent chance to make it to Fethiye in time.
Our next layover in Istanbul was also tight. We had a lot to do in a short time. After purchasing a visa stamp and passing through immigration we headed to the baggage claim. Our bags had been checked through to Istanbul so we would need to claim our lost bags there. We split up. I went to find an ATM to get a handful of Turkish Lira and Becky went to the lost luggage desk to file a claim. Returning to the baggage area I decided I might as well hang out near the luggage carousel in the slim hope that our carry-on bag would somehow arrive. I paid casual attention as the first few bags came up from our Athens flight. Suddenly a familiar looking bag appeared. It looked like one of the bags we checked long ago in San Francisco. I looked closer. Indeed an airline miracle had occurred. The bags that we’d checked in San Francisco found us in Istanbul. A few moments later our checked cabin bag from the Athens’ jaunt was also circulating on the stainless steel luggage carousel. How any of these bags made it to Istanbul in time to meet us I’ll never know. (The bag tags indicated that our checked luggage had not gone to Athens with us.)
It took two attempts to convince Becky that all of our bags had indeed arrived in Istanbul. She could give up her place at the luggage claim desk and we could hurry to our next flight now due to leave in forty minutes.
It seems that the travel worm had turned. We’d make it to Fethiye a little late but with our luggage in hand.
Or would we? After a ten minute hike to Istanbul Airport’s domestic terminal we went to the check-in gate for the Turkish Airlines flight to Dalaman. The agent took Becky’s ticket; she quickly had a boarding pass. Next the TA counterperson looked at my ticket. In Frankfurt, United’s ticket printer had failed between printing Becky’s ticket and mine. Becky had a computer printed copy; I had a hand written ticket. United’s agent in Frankfurt assured us that this would not be a problem. And perhaps it wouldn’t have been a problem if the United Airline agent had written the correct date for the flight on the ticket; I had received a handwritten ticket for yesterday’s flight.
Less than twenty-five minutes remained before our flight departed. We bounced between Turkish Airline counter agents trying to get the ticket problem resolved. Eventually, after another ten minutes of unexplained drama and a phone call, my ticket was accepted. With thirteen minutes remaining before our last flight’s departure, our bags were checked in once again. (The carry-on with the emergency clothes was clutched close at hand.) Once again we headed through security to the gate.
The thought crossed our minds that our bags might not make our last flight. After all, the bags were checked in just moments before the planes departure. But this time at least we could see that the luggage conveyor headed directly out to our boarding plane. Besides, the travel worm had changed course; it would now be far too cruel for our bags not to arrive with us in Dalaman.
And indeed the bags did arrive in the small, Cold War era Dalaman International Airport as expect. After collecting the luggage we found our yacht charter company’s driver and loaded up into his van. Through the slackening light we were on our way through the familiar yet exotic Turkish countryside. We arrived at Fethiye’s port only a couple of hours after the planned departure of our charter boat. It had taken us five flights and more than two days to get to the boat.
In Fethiye we joined up with our friend Ross. Together we checked in with V-Go, our charter company. After paying with a wad of American dollars, we headed to the boat. On the dock we meet the crew of three and boarded the gulet Mavi Boncuk. A little more than one hundred feet long the wooden Mavi Boncuk would be our home for the better part of the next seven days.
Soon the crew skillfully maneuvered the Mavi Boncuk out of Fethiye’s small harbor. We motored to a small peaceful sheltered blue water cove a short distance away. Here we spent the first night. The contrast between the chaos, stress, and confusion of travel and the gentle life on a Turkish gulet could not be greater. More than ever, this was the perfect occasion for the slow pace of travel by boat. We were primed for a pleasant week on the beautiful turquoise waters of Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast.
This time it was perfectly clear; the journey was not the destination.