Last night, less than 24 hours before we were scheduled to get on a plane to India, we got a surprise. When you’re traveling internationally, surprises are usually the last thing you want, especially if they’re the kind we got.
“The United Airlines app says that flight 48 just checked in full in both business and economy,” Matt said, sitting upright in bed, scrolling through his iPhone.
“What? How’s that possible? Just this morning there were a ton of seats still open.”
“I know,” he said, tapping through various screens. “I don’t know what happened.”
Matt and I had decided to employ a bit of an unorthodox method to get to India, but a method that would also save us about two-thirds off standard flight prices. We’re grateful to have a friend who works for United, and each year our friend is able to give a few friends and family what’s called a “buddy pass.” Those buddy passes allow us to essentially fly standby to anywhere in the world, as long as it’s a direct United flight.
The big bonus of flying on a United buddy pass is two-fold. First, you only pay the taxes for the flight, instead of the full fare. Second, if seats are available on a flight, United doles out the buddy pass seats starting from the front of the plane going backward. That means if a seat is open in United Global First, for example—where there are only six seats, and each lies entirely flat, costing upward of $10,000 per seat—that seat could be yours.
The big drawback, of course, is that you’re flying standby. If the flight checks in full, you’re out of luck. And in the case of our flight, direct from Newark to Mumbai, there was only one flight a day. If you couldn’t get on it, you were out of luck until the following day.
Normally we’re pretty flexible with flying standby (as you have to be). For that kind of price reduction, and a shot at a nice seat, we happily go with the flow. But, in our case, on this trip, we have a ticking biological clock, and we needed to get to India as close to on schedule as possible. Our egg donor and surrogate had been pharmaceutically synched up very carefully along a narrow timeline to create the maximum chance of an egg donation, mixed with Matt’s genetic matter, implanted in the surrogate, turning into a pregnancy.
Bottom line: We had to make sure that Matt was at our clinic in Mumbai by Monday at 11 a.m. to complete his part of the cycle and avoid screwing up the carefully choreographed groundwork for our pregnancy.
We went to bed on Thursday night hoping we’d wake up Friday morning and something would have shifted to open up seats on flight 48.
* * *
We checked the United app when we woke up Friday morning.
“Oh no,” Matt said.
Flight 48 was still showing “full” for business and economy.
I got on the phone with United. “Go to the airport anyway,” the United rep said. “Two to three percent of seats come open when people miss connections, or don’t get to the airport on time, or any number of things. It’s worth a shot.”
We packed in a hurry.
* * *
On the United app we could see that the list of standby passengers for flight 48 had grown to eleven people. Even if two to three percent of the passengers didn’t get on the flight, as the United rep had mentioned, we were still something of a long shot for getting on board.
“How many United miles do you have?” Matt asked me.
I travel a lot for work and luckily had set aside a nice nest egg of miles. “Just over a hundred thousand,” I said.
“Okay. Maybe we can use the buddy passes to fly into Istanbul, or Paris, or Zurich, and then use the reward miles to get us the rest of the way to Mumbai.”
As the bus careened through traffic on the highway, I got on the phone with United. Matt looked up the most strategic options for connecting and using our buddy passes in conjunction with airline miles to get us to Mumbai as quickly as possible.
“Well, you got lucky,” the United rep said after I’d explained our situation and she’d started looking up potential flights. “There are still a couple seats left from Zurich to Mumbai, connecting through Munich.” I heard keys tapping in the background. “It’ll cost thirty thousand rewards miles each for an economy booking. It’s fifty thousand for business.”
I turned to Matt and told him the stats. “Should we use up all our points and go business?”
He shrugged. “That’s what the points are for, right?”
Suddenly we had a business-class rewards flight for two, booked one way, for Zurich to Munich to Mumbai. Matt got on the phone with our United flight attendant friend and got our buddy passes switched from the Mumbai direct, which still looked hopelessly full, to the Zurich direct. Several seats were still open.
Just like that, we had a whole new flight itinerary, all accomplished on two smartphones on a coach bus zooming toward the airport. The change in plans may have cost us all our rewards miles, but it gave us a virtual guarantee that we would get on a flight in a matter of hours, and also get us to the clinic in Mumbai on schedule.
* * *
We were thrilled when the agent handed us business-class tickets for our flight to Zurich.
“Enjoy, gentlemen,” she said, as we headed off to board our flight.
We settled into the last two seats in business, directly bordering economy class, both excited we’d finally made it to the starting line of our journey.
But then, another surprise.
“Hi, um, guys?” It was a United employee, holding a sheet of paper in her hands. “I’m sooooo sorry, but a pair of United Global First travelers missed a connection to Tel Aviv, and they need to get on this flight to finish their itinerary.”
Oh no. Okay. Where was this going?
Apparently, the United employee explained, since we were flying on buddy passes, and the pair of travelers in question had the highest United Premier ranking (higher than Silver, Gold, or Platinum), we had been bumped from our business seats.
“We were able to secure 19C and 19E for you, however. So, if you can just go ahead and get your things and get yourselves situated back there….”
For the record, Matt and I aren’t snobs. However, when you’ve mentally prepared yourself for and settled into the cool, calm comforts of a business seat that goes completely flat, perfect for sleeping on the overnight flight, along with plentiful leg room (Matt’s tall) and a full, real meal, with flight attendants that are happy and chatty, this was a bit of a needle-scratching-on-a-record change of events.
Matt was not terribly amused by this change of plans. Nor was I. As we finally settled into our Economy Plus seats, just one row behind our former business-class seats, but a world apart in creature comforts, we agreed that one thing was most important: We were on our way to Mumbai, and we were going to make a baby. The whole “Sorry, but we’ve given your seats away to more important people” debacle began to shrink in importance, and we settled in for our seven-hour flight to Zurich.
* * *
Swiss efficiency is the only reason we made our connection in Zurich. We landed at 8:40 a.m. local time, and our next flight was scheduled to take off at 9:10 a.m. The fact that we made it through another round of security in Zurich, plus a monorail ride to another terminal, and still made it to our flight is a credit to Swiss order and organization.
Zurich to Munich took all of forty minutes. The flight attendants had just enough time to serve us a very European, very tiny breakfast, before they cleared plates and we were on the ground in Munich.
After our business class tease from Newark to Zurich (“It’s yours! Wait, no it’s not!”) it was a relief to be properly booked into the business class rewards miles seats that we’d reserved a matter of hours earlier from a bus headed to Newark.
Neither of us had slept at all by the time we got onto our final flight, Munich to Mumbai, and our bodies thought it was about five o’clock in the morning. The very thought of a nearly lie-flat bed had us both salivating and reaching for our eye masks.
After a meal that was supposedly lunch (our bodies had no idea what meal to expect at this point) we both collapsed into the kind of sleep where neither of us could remember how exactly we’d fallen asleep.
I slept through Iran and woke up over Afghanistan, between Kandahar and Kabul. Matt woke up over Pakistan, just in time for one last airborne meal (supposedly dinner).
Finally, near midnight local time, we landed in Mumbai.
Hot, humid air seeped into the jetway, but the airport itself was air conditioned. It smelled powerfully of must or mold, like a summer cabin shut away for several seasons and newly opened for the season. We made it through passport control and customs without incident and headed toward the taxis.
When leaving Mumbai Airport, or any airport in India, we were told it’s critical to prepay for a taxi ride while still inside the airport. Otherwise, we’d heard, things devolved into a hot mess of gypsy cabs and who-knows-what-else in the throngs of people outside. Gentlemen pretending they were our cab driver tried to help us with our bags (everybody wants a tip), but we made it to our assigned cab and a got in without too much other errant fuss.
Our cab driver was an elderly gentleman with silver hair who didn’t speak English. He did, however, have the cab slip from the airport, and started off into the night.
Our cab was a rust bucket 1960s-style vehicle, clearly ridden hard over the years, with backseats that were so well used that it was impossible to tell what was a seat and what was just a mash of fabric. There was no air conditioning and the rolled-down windows let in the soupy midnight air.
The diesel cab—a stick shift with sticky gears—stopped and started through traffic. Luckily the hotel wasn’t far from the airport. The taxi died on the way up an inclined driveway and the cabbie had to restart the vehicle and throw it forcefully into gear to get up the remainder of the cobblestone drive.
Security officers with mirrors on the end of poles looked under our vehicle before we got out. Our baggage was put through airport-style security measures and we were frisked with a metal detecting wand before the double doors to our hotel were opened for us and we entered a whole different world.
Inside our hotel a wall of air conditioning hit us and a world of marble and chandeliers unfolded. As we were told by well-traveled friends, there’s five-star India, and there’s everyday India. After all the traveling, we were glad to get to our nicely-appointed room, drop our bags, set up wi-fi access, and FaceTime family.
So, alas, after three flights and more than 8,000 flight miles, we’re safely here in Mumbai, twenty-three and a half hours after leaving our apartment in New York City.
After a night of Ambien-aided sleep, Day One in Mumbai for the New Dads will officially begin.