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Books / Writing | Travel

Good Night, Irene—Confessions of a Mileage Whore

SFO-IAD

Bronze Certificate, Funny Travel Category, 9th Annual Solas Awards for Travel Writing from Travelers’ Tales, March 2015

It’s not easy being a mileage whore. Sometimes you have to do things that don’t seem to make sense.

United Airlines operates a major hub in San Francisco, and I’ve whored for their miles for years now. On my trip to Brazil recently, because I wanted the mileage, I had chosen a longer United itinerary through Newark going and Washington coming.

But when things got complicated on the return, I had to decide if the miles were worth it.

We wrapped our week-long video shoot in São Paulo on a Friday night—amid much hugging and thanking with the cast and crew—and had time to relax over dinner that evening.

Saturday was the first day all week I didn’t have to set my alarm for 5:30, and I luxuriated in sleeping in. I had plans to meet my co-worker for breakfast before his 3 pm flight back home to Salvador, Bahia, further north up the Brazilian coast. My own departure for the States was scheduled for Saturday night.

But when I awoke with a start Saturday morning, I had an email and several phone messages from United, warning me that my scheduled 10:15 departure that night to Washington-Dulles had been pushed back five hours to 3:15 am Sunday, because of “late aircraft arrival.” I didn’t mind leaving Brazil later, but I did the math and quickly realized that I would miss my connecting flight from Dulles to San Francisco.

I thought it odd that United knew so far in advance that their aircraft would arrive late; the plane was probably still hours away from its scheduled departure. I checked the Internets to see what was up. Good night! Hurricane Irene had made landfall in South Carolina a few hours before and was, at that moment, devastating the Washington area as it moved north up the coast.

I called United, to the special Premier Executive Mileage Whore number in the States, to discuss my itinerary. The agent was sympathetic to my plight and cheerfully re-booked my Dulles-SFO connecting flight.

“But I have to ask,” I stammered, “Is it safe to fly through Dulles? I mean, isn’t the hurricane kind of a hindrance to air traffic?”

“Well,” the agent replied in measured tones, “Dulles hasn’t shut down. It’s one of the few airports in the Northeast to stay open, though we’ve had many cancellations there today.

“You can accept this reservation now and still change it later if things don’t look right,” she told me. “We’ve temporarily waived all change fees, to make it easier for people to reroute their flights around the bad weather. All our Brazil flights go through the Northeast, but we can always try to route you through Houston or Miami on another carrier.”

So, did flying directly into a hurricane seem like a prudent idea? No. Was I willing to keep the same itinerary in order to stay on United? You bet. Also, I’d spent time on United’s website since landing in Brazil, checking their seat maps regularly and grabbing better Economy seats as they came available—aisle seats in the slightly-more-legroom section, and closer to the front. If I switched airlines, I was afraid I’d get jammed into a middle seat on some other carrier.

I surfed through some weather sites and bought a new weather app for my iPad, trying to determine if I’d be heading right into the eye of the storm. Most weather prognosticators were guessing that Irene would continue to head north.

Meanwhile, I headed out with my friends for a Brazilian brunch, a feijoada (fayzh-WHA-duh), a traditional Portuguese dish of beans usually served with rice and various meats. Our feijoada that day included thin strips of meat, thick chops, and sausages—pork, pork, and pork—delicious, though a bit heavy once ingested.

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After lunch, I bade my coworkers farewell and went shopping for gifts. While driving to the market, I received a confirming email from United for my newly booked connecting flight from Dulles to San Francisco … on Saturday afternoon.

Big problem. It was already Saturday afternoon, and I was still in South America. Somehow, it seemed, United’s computers, huffing and puffing from the strain of rebooking thousands of cancellations, had allowed on my itinerary a Saturday connecting flight to SFO that left before my Sunday morning flight from Sao Paulo!

I called the airline, and the operator at the special Mileage Whore line chuckled over the mistake, saying, “That’s impossible. The software can’t actually do that.” Nevertheless, it did. She rebooked me for a second flight that would actually leave after my first flight arrived, then announced that my departure from Sao Paulo had now been put back another hour, to 4:15 am Sunday. The good news was that my request to upgrade from Economy Class would probably go through.

At one time many of my jobs flew us in comfy, wide Business Class seats. But in recent years, they usually send us in Economy, and it’s become nearly impossible to upgrade. I’m a big guy, and I have a lot of experience folding myself into small Coach seats. But with a quarter million miles in my United account, if the opportunity came along to upgrade to Business Class for my long international flight segment, I’d be happy to sacrifice 25,000 miles and a few hundred bucks for a ticket that would normally cost several thousand dollars and greater comfort.

Then I found out … (drumroll) … that my flight to Dulles featured “two-cabin service”—Economy Class and First. No Business Class. So I might be able to upgrade to First Class, the Holy Grail of Mileage Whoredom.

Late Saturday afternoon, I went for a walk in the upscale neighborhood of my hotel. How could I tell it was upscale? The Ferrari dealer on the corner was one clue. The very expensive pizza parlor and French bistro in the area were two more. I spent a long time wandering slowly through the streets, taking pictures of people and buildings, absorbing as much Brazil as I could before dark, conscious that I still had a long time to wait for my flight.

Back in my hotel room, I haunted the weather sites, checking their predictions for Dulles the next day, glomming onto ambiguous, sketchy guesses that the DC weather might be partly cloudy “with a chance of tropical storm conditions” on Sunday, whatever that meant. My obsession with the weather, a nap, and dinner helped me pass the time till my midnight ride to the airport, knowing I’d be up most of the night waiting for my plane.

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In my carry-on luggage, I had carefully packed the power supplies for my laptop, my iPhone, and my iPad, anticipating that I could get stuck for many hours in some airport, either a further-delayed departure from Sao Paulo, or a much longer layover in Dulles. At least I would have stuff to read and ways to communicate, as long as there was electricity. I wondered if I should bring sandwiches or food or flashlights. Was I crazy to be flying right into the hurricane? I thought about all those lovely miles, and decided it made perfect sense.

I did manage to upgrade to First for the flight to Dulles, and we left right on time at 4:15, six hours late. I quickly realized how lucky I was: this aircraft’s First Class section featured fully reclining lie-flat bed seats. I’d never had one of these reclining bed capsules before. After a week of short nights, long days, and non-stop activity, the comfort was worth every mile and every dollar!

In the end, the hurricane was a non-issue. I got off much easier than the poor folks who lived in the path of the storm. Irene did pass through Dulles a full day before me and was already tearing up New York on her way to Boston when my flight from Brazil made landfall, right on time, in DC. Partly cloudy never looked so good, and I saw no “tropical storm conditions.” I cleared Customs, rechecked my bags to SFO, then found the gate for my connecting flight and was delighted when the agent handed me another First Class ticket.

Upgrades were available because Irene had scared many fliers away from the Northeast Corridor. I could have come back through Texas or Miami, if I hadn’t wanted my United miles. But since I stayed on plan, like a true Mileage Whore, I was rewarded with First Class on both legs of the journey. Obviously the secret to upgrading on an international flight is to fly through a natural disaster. Or near one.

I tucked into a complimentary glass of red wine, my personal movies and adjustable footrest deployed, my cushy First Class seat reclined jauntily, and settled in for the ride home.

One Thing I Won’t Miss About Brazil

Signs like these are ubiquitous, even in hotels. As in many Latin American countries, Brazilian septic systems are subject to clogging. The signs advise you not to flush your toilet paper or towels, but to discard them in the cans provided. The sign below reminds you that others will use the toilet after you, and also requests you not urinate on the floor.

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