One of my (and definitely my mom’s) toughest travel days yet

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past couple of million miles, it’s that there’s almost no aspect of the travel experience that can stress me out… or so I thought. I’ve just about seen it all, and I tend to think you can fly me around the world six times without stopping and I’d still call it an easy journey.

My return journey from Bali, however, was probably one of my toughest ever (within the realm of flying in premium cabins), and I think I’ve learned a few lessons. First of all, when we started planning the trip, my mom asked if she could check a bag. Usually I’m opposed to checked bags, but I figured what the heck, it’s her birthday, she can do what she wants. If a checked bag makes her feel comfortable, then so be it. Now in the end she wore maybe 10% of the clothes she brought, but such is life.

To add to that, our return journey was somewhat complicated — Bali to Kuala Lumpur, then an overnight, then Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong to San Francisco. From there I’d fly to Seattle and she’d fly to Tampa via New York. My hope was that the Bali to Hong Kong nonstop flight on Cathay Pacific would open up, but sadly there was no such luck. So we were stuck with a rather complicated routing, with a total of five segments for her. That would have probably been fine, though it certainly wasn’t an ideal routing.

Fast forward to day three of the trip. We go white water rafting in Ubud. It was quite possibly the most fun thing I’ve ever done, though what we didn’t realize is that you had to go down 600 steep steps to get to the river, and then climb 300 steps to get back up. That nearly killed my mom’s knees, and she could barely walk for the next couple of days.

When we got to Amankila she could still barely walk, and the fact that Amankila probably has more stairs than any hotel I’ve ever stayed at didn’t help. By the last day of the trip she was basically limping.

Steps everywhere!

So then we’re off to the airport to fly from Bali to Kuala Lumpur. The traffic was horrible and even though we left plenty early we made it to the airport only about an hour before departure. Fortunately Aman has eight porters at the airport, and they nearly treated our situation as a damn national emergency. Suffice to say we made our flight with time to spare thanks to them.

Flying Bali to Kuala Lumpur

Then we got to Kuala Lumpur, where we took the KLIA Express to Central. Fortunately the Le Meridien is located right above the train station, so it wasn’t too much walking. But since my mom could barely walk I was trying to carry about six bags. As usual it was scorching hot in KL as well, so by the time I made it to the room I looked like I just got out of the pool. Plus side of the evening was that we made it to the hotel at 8:23PM and the club lounge serves drinks till about 8:30PM, so I managed to get my mom about three glasses (more like goblets based on how I poured them) of red wine, which made her a happy camper.

So that day wasn’t too bad. The next morning my mom wakes up with horrible swelling in her foot, to the point that her shoe doesn’t fit. Go figure she didn’t actually bring any sneakers on the trip (something I should have reminded her to do!). So in addition to her knee pain she’s totally limping at this point and can’t really walk.

We get back on the KLIA Express to the airport, I’m trying to jockey about six bags, and she’s trying to walk as fast as she can. We get to check-in just over an hour before departure. At this point her pride is still taking precedence and she doesn’t request a wheelchair. At this point I decide we might as well check as many bags as we can, since I can’t carry everything. So in addition to her checked bag I check my carry-on, something I otherwise never do. That left me with her small carry-on, my laptop bag, and two other shopping bags.

After a quick visit to the lounge we get on the Malaysia A380 to Hong Kong. It was the first flight of the morning, and go figure it left us just over an hour connection in Hong Kong. We’re sitting on the ground and it’s about a hundred degrees in the cabin because the APU isn’t working. Yes, it’s annoying, but there’s no need to throw a hissy fit over it, in my opinion. The guy seated across the aisle from me seemed to disagree.

A380 business class

As boarding finishes up he asks the flight attendant why it’s so hot. He explains it will be cooler once we take off. He doesn’t accept that as an answer, so asks to be speak to the captain. At that point the purser comes over and explains that the APU is faulty, and that as soon as we push back and the engines start it will be cooler. At this point he loses it and asks why his colleague lied to him, since he didn’t say anything was faulty.

He sits there like a complete drama queen fanning himself with a full newspaper (hint: if you’re going to fan yourself with something, make it a laminated safety card, and not a pound of paper that requires more energy than the “cooling” effects). As another flight attendant walks down the aisle he grabs her and says “get me a cold towel NOW.” She’s courteous and apologetic and brings it to him. As soon as he’s done with it he throws it on the floor and requests “an ice cold glass of water.” He downs the glass, and yells “another.” She brings him another, and then he yells “I want one more.” He then says he wants to be seated somewhere cooler, “maybe the lower deck.” Yeah, like that’s going to happen. I was about ready to punch the guy at this point…

In the meantime I explained my mom’s swelling to the flight attendants, and asked if they could maybe get her a bag of ice, which they gladly did. Unlike the Malaysia cabin crew from Bali, this one was spectacular, and couldn’t have been more accommodating.

Go figure the flight was delayed about 30 minutes on departure, leaving us a very short connection in Hong Kong.

The only interesting thing to note about the flight is that we got treated really well on Malaysia Airlines. We were seated mid-cabin and the flight attendant came specifically to our seats to take meal orders, then went back to the rest of the cabin to take them front to back. We were also addressed by name at every interaction, while I didn’t notice that for anyone else (except the guy seated across from me, but I think that’s because he managed to piss off the crew sufficiently). So later I managed to take a peak at the manifest, and saw that next to my name it said “PLATINUM *EMERALD*,” which made sense. But what I found odd is that all the other Emerald members on the manifest showed as “SILVER *EMERALD*,” which doesn’t make sense to me. Anyone know what the distinction is between the two? Kind of matches all my experiences on Malaysia so far, of being treated exceptionally well as a OneWorld Emerald.

Anyway, towards the end of the flight none of my mom’s shoes fit anymore, so I asked if they have any slippers they could maybe give her. The nice flight attendant managed to dig up some slippers and socks, so my mom was planning on parading through the terminal in those. I think she may have just one upped my pajamas escapade.

Stylish terminal footwear

Anyway, we arrive in Hong Kong with about 40 minutes to make our connection. Our arrival gate is 60-something, and we’re leaving from gate three. If you’re at all familiar with Hong Kong Airport, you know that gate might as well be in Macau based on the distance. While my mom was stylishly limping down the jet bridge in her slippers, I was trying to carry our four bags, so between us we looked like a bit of a circus act. I was delighted when I noticed that there was someone waiting at the bottom of the jet bridge with a sign with our name on it. I figured she had a Maserati waiting to take us to the other side of the terminal given our short connection.

Ah, who am I kidding, this is Cathay Pacific, the airline that offers one of the all around most solid first class products, yet can’t do ground services for $*&%.

The problem is that the agent didn’t even work for Cathay Pacific, she was a contract worker. She didn’t speak much English, other than “hurry hurry.” I pointed at my mom’s feet, and said “foot swelling, has to walk slow.” She proceeded to walk in front of us for the next 10 minutes while glancing down at her watch every few minutes, during which time I think we made it from gate mid-60-something to low-60-something. Ain’t no way in hell we’re going to make the connection at this point.

So I saw one of those “concierge” golf carts, which you can hire to drive you from one end of the terminal to the other. I stopped him and asked him to drive us to the other side of the terminal. Rather expensive at HKD60 per person, but well worth it. As we hopped on the agent that picked us up looked all confused, and I asked her to get on as well. I was happy to pay for her to come along so she could get us in the crew line at the transit security checkpoint, which I know is about the only thing they’re useful for.

Finally making some progress!

Sure enough we made it to the gate at the final boarding call, and were the last passengers aboard. During boarding one of the gate agents got aboard to tell my mom something, and when she was gone I asked my mom what she had said. She said “oh, just that our bags won’t make it and that they’re being sent to New York.” To New York?! Neither of us have New York as our final destination, so I wish I could’ve corrected that before the door closed.

Anyway, the flight itself was lovely, the crew was extremely concerned for her, and if there’s one thing that puts me in a good mood it’s Hong Kong style milk tea and egg tarts.

Best thing about Cathay Pacific

We arrived in San Francisco on time. This time around my mom agreed to take a wheelchair. I have Global Entry, so while she cleared customs I went to the baggage department. I was extremely impressed they already had a missing baggage report filled out, and all I had to do was write down the address I wanted each individual bag sent to — awesome!

The toughest part of the experience was actually upon arrival, as I was trying to decide what was best for my mom. I was booked on a 4PM Alaska flight to Seattle, while my mom was booked on a 3PM American flight to New York, and then a 7AM American flight down to Tampa. There was nothing more direct to Tampa available the same afternoon.

My original plan was to try and book her on the San Francisco to New York redeye instead and get her a day room in San Francisco to relax. I was even considering spending a day in San Francisco with her and having her fly out the following night instead so she could recover, but she insisted she needed to return to work. So I felt pretty guilty when she got on a San Francisco to New York flight set to arrive at 11:30PM, had eight hours there, and had to make her connection the following morning, all while hardly being able to walk.

Fortunately everything worked out in the end. That being said, it was definitely one of tougher travel days. Usually I’m in “the zone” when I’m in the airport, and there’s no obstacle I haven’t faced before. Or so I thought, till yesterday. After my experience yesterday I felt like a once-a-year flier as I was totally out of my element, so it was certainly a learning experience.

It’s safe to say I learned a few lessons:

  • Friends don’t let friends check bags. Or in this case, sons don’t let moms check bags.
  • Always make mom bring sneakers on a trip. Always.
  • Cathay Pacific doesn’t know how to do ground services.
  • Next time I’m planning a trip with mom (if she’ll ever take one with me again — I’m not convinced), make sure you can keep it to as few segments as possible, even if it’s a less comfortable routing.

Fortunately my mom is now safely at home and (hopefully) recovering!

Filed Under: Travel
  1. I feel your pain. I just did USM to BKK, then a room at the Novotel, then BKK to ICN overnight and ICN to JFK – and I was wrecked. No checked bag. I can only imagine what she was feeling, but glad she’s home and recovering now.

  2. @ John — Because they were over $1,000 in coach and over $2,000 in business class. Didn’t think that was worth it to eliminate just one connection.

  3. I’ve learned the hard way never to book my mother on a connecting flight to anywhere, ever. If there is no nonstop available, she can have an overnight stopover at each connecting point.

    Sorry to hear that things didn’t go smoothly and I hope that your mother still enjoyed what sounds like a brilliant trip despite the various issues.

  4. Another lesson:

    -If you’re limping, don’t let pride prevent you from asking for a wheelchair.

    Getting elderly and disabled passengers on and off airplanes (and through airports) is actually something airlines tend to do pretty well. So why not take advantage of it if you need to? I wouldn’t hesitate. In fact, when I’m 97, you’ll find me being wheeled from the Lufthansa First Class Terminal to my personal Benz.

  5. “Friends don’t let friends check bags. Or in this case, sons don’t let moms check bags.”

    Maybe friends don’t let friends over-pack in the first place?

    “Cathay Pacific doesn’t know how to do ground services.”

    Says the family who refused to request a wheelchair?

    “Next time I’m planning a trip with mom, make sure you can keep it to as few segments as possible, even if it’s a less comfortable routing.”

    Now that’s a perfectly reasonable lesson to learn from this experience. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that everyone has their own level of interest in traveling and it’s best to plan things around the least common denominator when traveling with others.

  6. Uh oh. I am taking my mother in September to Japan, Singapore, and China. We booked Aeroplan Business Class seats and I said if we were going to take a whole day to travel between each destination, the more segments the better (say we’ve been to more cities/countries (even if it is just the airport), visit more lounges, and try out as many different products as possible). So instead of flying nonstop from Tokyo to Singapore and from Singapore to Beijing, we ended up booking:



    Mom now wants to check a bag!

    So, in reviewing your four lessons:

    •Friends don’t let friends check bags. Or in this case, sons don’t let moms check bags.

    With what I am doing to my mom on a big whirlwind trip of Asia, I think I have to let her check a bag… I have no choice as I do not think she can fit two weeks worth of items in one carryon.

    •Always make mom bring sneakers on a trip. Always.

    This point is checked, as I insisted that she bring a good pair of runners for all the walking we will be doing.

    •Cathay Pacific doesn’t know how to do ground services.

    Not an issue as we are flying Star Alliance partners.

    •Next time I’m planning a trip with mom (if she’ll ever take one with me again — I’m not convinced), make sure you can keep it to as few segments as possible, even if it’s a less comfortable routing.

    Too late now!

    But I am sure that we will enjoy it!

  7. @ Dax — I live 2,500 miles from her, what am I supposed to do, supervise her packing?

    As far as ground services go, am referring to their first class ground services. Thai will pick you and drop you off in a golf cart if you’re flying first class out of Hong Kong, while Cathay Pacific, which is based there, doesn’t even have golf carts for premium passengers with short connections.

  8. Moms will always want to check bags. It’s a law of nature.

    My mom cannot handle more than 3 segments. If she can’t get there in 3 segments, I won’t book it.

  9. I must emphasize the value of wheelchair assist. Do not allow your mother’s vanity to prevent that service-EVER! I had CX wheelchair assist for a HKG connection last year, which included a race past MANY gates and even a change of terminals, and the runner was terrific! Another thing to point out-those runners deserve a BIG TIP, and I see many idiots not doing that, when an runner can even spend HOURS with one passenger, especially going through customs and retrieving bags! I carry $5’s just for that purpose!

  10. Or just travel a shorter distance. There are beautiful places to create memories much closer to home. Go to the Caribbean/South America/Europe. Think in terms of one or two segments (if two, make sure one is a shorter segment).

  11. This must be a typical mum act!
    Did a trip with mine this year, and her feet were swelling as well.

  12. I flew with Malaysian last week and I was tagged as a “Platinum” “Emerald” as well – not sure why b/c my Emerald is with BA and it is a status match at that! Hell, I will take the Platinum though. . .I love having my bags first off the flight on a long haul 🙂

  13. The lesson here really should be: money talks; miles, well, walk. All of this could have been easily avoided.

  14. There is no way my mom won’t check a bag. Also, there is no way to go to Bali with just a carry on if you are a mom. When flying with my mom or helping her plan her trip the first thing I do is to get her at her final destination with the minimum number of connections possible. In my mom’s case she has some knee problems and they tend to swell pretty bad if she walks too much. First time I convinced her to get a wheelchair she cried the entire way from the terminal to the plane. She felt really bad. However, after that experience she is now the first one to ask for a wheelchair when she books a trip. There are amazing benefits for people in a wheelchair. You have priority in everything: check-in, security, boarding, immigration, etc… Also, you don’t have to walk long distances or carry your baggage. Also, by requesting a wheelchair you usually get seats towards the front of the plane if you are not flying on premium cabins. Overall, it makes total sense for people with any type of disability or difficulties to walk to request a wheelchair.

  15. You did the best you could with the information you had available, including feedback from your mother. The wheelchair is a big issue with parents. As Santastico said, it can be a very touchy subject, and only you know how your mother would react.

    There were good suggestions here:
    1. Anytime there are a lot of connections, book an overnight stay just to make it easy on your mother.
    2. Remember the sneakers!
    3. Research what options are available for the swelling. This may require a visit to the doctor for a water pill, or more serious treatment.
    4. Packing suggestion which helped on our 2 week (4 cities in Europe honeymoon): pack a few light-weight outfits in a large suitcase for checking but only fill it half-way. Leave the rest of the space for shopping.

  16. Wheelchair assist is the way to go in airports with the elderly, in my opinion. I’m glad to read your mom is ok through her transit in NYC. Regardless, I’m confident she savoured the all the time she spent with you!

  17. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to talk my mom out of bag checking…amazing what a “gift” of a nice Tumi carry on will do for you!

  18. @ Matt — We went rafting on the Ayung River. It was absolutely stunning and relatively easy for all ages (minus the stairs, perhaps).

  19. @bluto & Santastico: Speak for your own moms; mine (owing to her distrust of baggage hanlders) manages to pack two weeks’ worth of clothes in a carry-on! Being a wispy 5′ probably helps, though.

  20. Embarrassingly enough, only now am I learning to pack (relatively) lightly after years of only using 10% of what i pack.

    And the egg tarts ahhhhh soo goood!

  21. A year from now, your mom wont remember all the travel hassles or the swollen feet. She will remember the awesome trip and time spend with her son.

  22. I’m 72 with bad knees and I now use wheel chair service. They are not ALWAYS great, but it saves so much on the old body. If you cannot handle the distances and the short times between flights, put your ego aside. Give a smile and a tip.

  23. Why do I feel like everyone missed the (obvious) point ? At first sight of the hundreds of stairs there should have been a change of plans for the day. Problem solved. Nothing to do with checking the bags.

  24. This really illustrates the conundrum between award availability vs practicality. Sure we’re getting to experience aspirational products we might not otherwise pay for but sometimes it’s at the expense of practicality. The “time is money” factor plays a huge role anytime I even consider an award flight.

  25. Ben, I have a bad knee as well and whenever I plan trips, the first thing I check is easy access to sites ( Trust me the Parthenon in Athens had to be climbed with two tylenols and a percocet afterwards, but well worth it).

    Usually people pack more than they should. Only seasoned travelers pack what is necessary. I hope you mom’s knee heals soon. It is not fun at all.

  26. “Friends don’t let friends check bags. Or in this case, sons don’t let moms check bags.” +1 It only takes one experience like the one you listed above to deter future bag-checking.

  27. You could have checked in Central station before boarding the train. Given the circumstances it would have saved you the pain of lugging several bags around.

  28. Many lessons learned. Don’t book a hotel with that many stairs. I would have paid to fly direct to HKG. Mom’s birthday pull out one of your 20 credit cards you have. You left her with an 8 hour connection in NY? Seriously my Mother would have said “thanks but no thanks”

    I think you got WAY caught up in the points here. Someone else said time is money. No doubt it’s great to go to Bali BUT let’s be practical also. FYI that A-380 KL to HKG is almost daily now delayed. You were REALLY lucky (lucky) on that day.

  29. “Friends don’t let friends check bags. Or in this case, sons don’t let moms check bags.”

    Nonsense. The rate of baggage mishandling is very low, and in the few instances where my bag was delayed or damaged, the airline made things right. Were your mom’s bags not delivered to her home?

    Friends don’t let friends schlep through the airport with ridiculously overstuffed carry-on bags and “personal items.”

  30. CX has excellent upgrade options between DPS and HKG – never felt like it was an issue, actually.

  31. @lucky – sorry, I was not thinking. I guess it’s easy to just buy that one way segment and get your upgrades. We were only CX gold a few weeks back and had no problems getting the upgrade (in fact, we were first on the list) – granted not to first though 😉

  32. We came thru HKG 3 weeks ago. Arrived at gate 67 and departed from 3. The train at gate 60+/- was a welcome site.Left us enough time to have dinner in the Wing before boarding and that was great as the PEY meal on #880 wasn’t worth eating.

  33. Hi lucky,

    Usually you are quite clever. But I am curious

    Why do you think the checked bag was an issue and not making your mom take the subway to the airport (hint, take a cab if someone can’t walk well, traffic doesn’t matter, leave more time)

    Did you request ground services from Cathay? They provided me with one, twice. One time, the service was astoundingly good. True, if you want to ride, you have to pay for the cart.

    I always check bags. A mis routed bag on the home is nothing compared to a forced march on KLIA express.

  34. Hope your mom is better, i can relate and its no fun -my feet swell with lots of walking and climbing too – I bring ziploc bags for ice packs and flip flops if my shoes won’t fit.
    my flight on Cathay was late, missing connection and ground services were great to meet me and book onward flights – my luggage stayed in Hong Kong for three days before finding me in Perth but they gave me spending cash when I arrived Perth to go shopping so was happy on award tix with no status.

  35. After reading all of this, I’m now EXTRA proud of my late grandmother. I took her to The Netherlands, France and England in ’98 for two weeks and she brought just ONE rolling suitcase with her – which she took on board instead of checking. I was able to strap on my pack and then pull her suitcase nearly all of the time so she only needed to carry her purse and any bottles of water we had.

    She was 77 years old and this was to be her only trip to Europe. It turned out to be the last time she really had the energy and stamina to enjoy a trip like that.

    I had been backpacking/hostel hopping by myself for two weeks when she joined me in Amsterdam. Together we had two weeks more (Netherlands, Paris, and London). She didn’t expect to stay at The Ritz but I made sure we were in nice, clean, well-located hotels where she would feel safe and comfortable.

    We really didn’t miss having more stuff with us. I rinsed out a few things in our hotel sink every night and then did one big laundry run midway through our Paris stay. Neither of us perspires much; that helped as we could wear clothing more than once.

    (An aside, we didn’t spend tons of time in restaurants. We’d eat two full meals every day, one in a restaurant and another as a picnic and then have two or three stops for tea or coffee, sometimes with an ice cream in there too.)

    We did decide to check our bags going home (non-stop LHR to SEA) because, after maintaining a healthy weight of under 20 lb ea for most of the adventure, those bags piled on an awful lot of weight during the last 48 hours abroad as we stuffed them with souvenirs and gifts.

  36. Some useful points for KL

    1) a taxi to/from KLIA to sentral for 2 is about the same cost as the train!

    2) The Le Meridien porters ALWAYS escort me with my 1! rollaboard from the hotel to the train and they know all the hidden elevators to avoid any steps! Why didn’t you ask them for help?

    3) Malaysia has a checkin desk where you can check your bag (even hours before) if you are taking the express. No need to transport it yourself to the airport!

    4) There are MANY shops in the sentral, usually at least 2 or 3 selling shoes (cheap), although I can’t swear they have sneakers it would have been easy to buy a pair of cheap flat shoes larger than her usual shoes

    and I have to agree that when you saw the 600 steps it might have been time to re-evaluate the plan 🙂

  37. @ Beachfan — Taking the KLIA Express is one decision I stand by. KL cabs often don’t turn on air conditioning, while the KLIA Express was air conditioned and allowed us to not even leave the building. It was also much faster than a taxi. Of all the things on the return journey that’s one thing I’d do again.

  38. Ben,

    Am same age as your mom and can tell you that despite issues with swollen feet and difficulty walking long concourses (more on that in a bit), pride keeps me from ordering the wheelchair. Maybe when I hit 70, but not in my sixties if I can walk at all 🙂

    Last time I checked a bag, Spiro Agnew was vice-president. A great record of baggage handling is meaningless if your checked bag is the one that goes AWOL. Aman would have gladly packed and mailed your mom’s things to her — did that on one of my stays there – only had to fill out the customs dec and took a week to receive the box – ridiculously inexpensive to boot. BTW, I’ve learned over the years that several upscale hotel chains provide this “mail-home” service.

    As for the swollen feet, another lesson learned came from a great podiatrist recommendation — get Mephisto’s if you travel a great deal – the deck shoe slip on style. Most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned plus terrific if you’re going to do a lot of walking. Also, they look pretty good, last forever, and they accomodate swelling easily. A bit pricey, but worth every penny IMHO – and no, I don’t work for Mephisto. Come to think of it, footwear for frequent travelers is a topic I don’t recall seeing much discussion about in the various blogs – yet it’s something a lot of frequent travelers have to deal with…

    Despite the tough trip home, you did a wonderful thing for your mom – bet she has fun telling her friends about the experiences she had, the time spent with her son, and the fact that the return trip qualifies her as a true “road warrior!”

  39. Lucky. If I had been in you shoes, I would have probably sought medical advice with regards to your mother. Some swelling of the lower extremities is common, especially after lengthy travel. But when fee continue to swell to a point where no shoes fit, then I think medical advice is appropriate. Don’t know when your mother had her last physical, but it may be worth checking out what caused such an extreme swelling episode. She really is not that old. I mean 60 these days is the new 40.

    A concerned reader.

  40. A hotel car would always have AC

    The KL cabs come in 2 grades, no? I always had AC, a couple times I had to ask.

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