The flight part of the journey back had its own twists and turns, beginning with the IFA group, that put on the event in Lisbon, thoughtfully providing busses to the airport. Oddly, the schedule had people arriving at the airport about 3-1/2 hours before their flights. (All the hotel personnel said you only needed two hours.) I suspect the extra time was not only based on the assumption that people would be unfamiliar with the facility, but also - and more to the point - IFA wanted to be absolutely sure that everybody got on their plane and not have to be held responsible for a screw-up if someone missed. I thought about taking a later bus than the one assigned for my group, but in the end I figured, "Oh, just go early. Even if it's less comfortable, you'll be there and settled."
As it turned out, the Lisbon Airport was indeed a bit convoluted to get through, and there were hiccups along the way. Yet even with that, I still got to my gate about 2 hours and 15 minutes early…
One thing that Americans are so fortune about, and I suspect many if not most take for granted is how so much of the world speaks English. It was pronounced in Lisbon, and it's not just a case of speaking the language with you, but the whole American culture is pronounced with businesses, billboards and signs in English. Not just American companies, but just in general. In large part, my guess is that this isn't just a matter of catering to Americans or only the culture, but since English is the international language, it opens the city (and other cities around the world) to people from everywhere.
That's why it was so surprising where the one place where you would have expected English to be so prominent would be at the airport, a focused location where travelers from around the world come and go - and oddly it was one of the least English-friendly places I came across. Further, there were no Traveler's Aid booths that I could see, and few airline booths had customer service reps out front.
Making all this more of a challenge was that, because we arrived at the airport so early, my flight wasn't even on the board yet, so I had no idea what gate to head towards. And I couldn't find the American Airlines booth. Finally, out of desperation, I went to the Moldavia Airlines desk to ask if they knew where the American booth was, since it was supposed to be next door, but that was deserted. In fact, it turned out that that was for American Airlines - but they don't show up until two hours (or three hours, someone else told me) before the first flight! Swell, that didn't do me a whole lot of good.
A tad bewildered, I decided to risk it and head towards the security gates. I had checked-in online the day before and had my QR Code all ready to scan and let me pass. Initially, I went to the wrong area, but they pointed me where to go. And I scanned - and was denied. The security guard checked the QR Code and its information and said that it wasn't what I needed, but had to go to American Airlines and get a booking pass. I asked what in the world was this QR Code I had been sent when I checked in - and to this moment I still have no explanation.
The problem was that I had to go to the American Airlines booth - and they had no one there. I was sent elsewhere, couldn't find it. And tracked down a rep for another airline (one I'd never heard of, but he was very considerate) who told me where to go for American. Unfortunately, it was the same booth with no one there.
At this point, I caught a break. I saw one of the journalists from our IFA group, Judie Stanford, who's founder and Editor-in-Chief of the excellent Gear Diary tech site, and a dynamo. I was comforted to know that although she is a major traveler, a member of an American Airline's Executive Platinum Club because she travels so much, even she was bewildered by the airport. But she pointed me in the direction where she had been able to find the American Airlines booth.
I headed off…and couldn't find it. But I thought she might have been directing me to the self-help kiosks (it turns out she wasn't, the location for American was more convoluted than I presumed), and so I tried there. Fortunately, there was an airport employee helping out…and it worked! O huzzah! I got my boarding pass and then headed off. O joy. And the good thing, too, is that even though the departure gate number still wasn't yet listed, it was on the boarding pass, so I now knew where to go, as well.
I went back to that security gate, my boarding pass worked, and I made it through! Scanner security was easy to find, and quick to get through. And then onto passport control - this could take a long time, I heard from others, but I made it through in three minutes (same as when I arrived). The airport isn't especially well-laid out - shocking, I know - through reasonably nice and easy (at this point!) to get to my gate, after a very long walk…which takes you directly through the Duty Free shopping area, there's no way to walk around it.
(Oddly, at the very end of this shopping area was a store for Tumi luggage. It's a good company, but a strange place to sell luggage. You have to figure that since you're only a short walk to your gate then, most people don't really have a great need for luggage.)
And so I made it to my gate. And the thing is, as I noted above, but now you know the details, even with all that confusion, bewilderment and mis-directions…I still got to the gate and sat down 2 hours and 15 minutes early!
But that ended up working out okay. Because about 15 minutes later, to both our surprises, Judie Stanford showed up. "I should have figured you were on the same flight, when you asked about American!" she said. So, I had someone to talk with to pass the time. And then when they started boarding, she - being an Executive Gold Club member - had a priority boarding pass and told me to join her. When we got to the pass-through gate, she just said, "He's with me," and we both boarded early.
Once again, o huzzah.
(I will note too that, as wildly-experienced a traveler as Judie is, even she said she got a bit bewildered by the Lisbon airport...)
The first leg of the flight heading out from Los Angeles to Philadelphia landed safely and reasonably on time, which is all I demand of a trip, though the bonuses were mediocre. Like the American flight over from L.A. to Philly, it was an old plane with no Entertainment Center, no music channels, and they even showed the same movie (!). The flight attendant said, "It's an old plane, so they figure why upgrade it since they'll eventually be getting a new plane for the route." (Actually, in comparison, this plane was better than the international one on the way over. That one, and the service, was like a budget airline in a comedy sketch, including when the flight attendant dropped the wrapped roll on the floor…and then put it back on the food tray! Yes, it was wrapped it was still touching the rest of the tray and would be picked up. Fortunately, I not only saw it, but it was for the seat next to me, so I told the fellow, and he carefully removed it off his tray.)
(There was a young girl in the seat next to me, and she was distraught upon discovering there was no Entertainment Center, no TV channels, no choice of movies and no music - and she hadn't recharged her phone beforehand because she assumed there would be, and that had all her games, books and music. And an 8-hour flight ahead. However, I had with me a bunch of chargers, including one meant to charge a laptop so it had a huge amount of power, which I offered to her. She was overjoyed.)
That left only going through customs in Philadelphia, changing terminals and making my way through the airport before my flight left. I made sure I had plenty of time, but was still concerned, especially if the flight was late. Well...it came in a half-hour early, and getting through the customs and the airport was so FAST that I had time to go to yet another terminal to see about catching an earlier flight back. I made it in time, but it was full. Some perspective: it usually takes 30-45 minutes to get through Customs in Los Angeles. Here, I was off the plane, got to Passport Control, went through Customs, made my way to the other terminal and then gate...in 23 minutes! (Getting through Customs only took eight minutes. I was joking with the Customs official about how the line was too short, and he was giving me options for making it longer...)
I ended up having about three hours at the Philadelphia airport. It doesn't have much charm or sense of design, but it seemed well-laid out, well-marked and pretty easy to get around which was very good. As I'd written early about the way over to Portugal, the American plane from L.A. to Philadelphia was excellent. And the one flying back from Philly to Los Angeles was a new, very nice plane, as well -- though with some issues I'll write about later. Ultimately, as I said what makes a flight a good one is if it lands safely and reasonably on time. This did both -- in fact, it got in 25 minutes early.
And so now I'm back. And having held off gong to bed until 11 PM and gotten up around 6:45 in the morning, I'm fairly close to caught up on the time...I hope.