This is part 19 of my series exploring my March 2017 trip to South Africa and Namibia, which started here.
It may seem like this trip report series is taking forever, but (a) it was a long trip and (b) other things have been going on which I will blog about shortly. This should have been my last post from my trip, but the travel gods intervened.
DC had very little snow this winter – indeed one day of accumulation total prior to my March trip. Of course, that meant a storm was then predicted for the day I returned home. Winter Storm Stella was predicted to bring 2 to 6 inches in DC – but in Dulles, far west of the city, they were predicting 6 to 12 inches. So, even taking off from Johannesburg, I was prepared for the possibility of a travel disruption.
Still on the SAA plane, I powered on my phone upon landing. My layover in Sao Paulo was supposed to be nearly 6 hours, so with an early arrival extending that, I decided I would just pay Verizon the $10 for a day of data Travelpass access (yes, a rip-off). That ended up being a bit of a waste of money as you’ll see. When I loaded my email, I saw that my United flight to Dulles had been canceled (along with all other morning IAD arrivals), and I had been rebooked on a slightly later flight to Chicago the same night, but then with a 7-hour layover in Chicago, getting into Dulles at 4:23pm the next afternoon (most of the earlier ORD-IAD flights had been canceled). Even if that went forward as scheduled (the GRU-ORD did, the ORD-IAD was delayed two hours, which meant I would have nine hours in a crowded airport lounge), that would have been a pretty terrible routing, not getting me back home from the airport until Tuesday evening instead of before work Tuesday morning. I quickly looked at other options, and there seemed to be a good Air Canada option into DCA, but I figured I’d talk to a United agent.
People started rushing through the cabin and I quickly grabbed my things, and got off the plane, rushed through security, discombobulated, and got to the Star Alliance lounge. There was some confusion about my boarding pass, but I was cleared to enter, at which point I gathered my things and promptly dropped my phone, which shattered irreparably, thus eating all my photos from the last leg of the trip and leaving me without a phone for the next few days. (So some of the pictures for this and the next large are blurry and taken on an old iPod Touch I carry around).
I managed to relatively keep my cool, and went into the lounge, where there was an airline service desk. The ANA agent there was trying to be helpful, saying the United agent wasn’t there yet but she’d try to call. Then the woman from the front desk came and said she’d try and call, but no one would answer, and she’d page me if she got through. (This seems to be a failure of a Star Alliance lounge and/or United. Yes, my United flight wasn’t for several hours, but once the flight was canceled, someone from United should have been around.)
I realized I had my Kindle, so logged onto the lounge internet and looked at the options United would automatically give me. None of them were great, involving multiple domestic connections through Houston, and I really didn’t want a domestic US connection because I knew those were most likely to be further delayed or canceled. But there was the flight the next day from GRU to IAD. Now, the plane was already there, so that wouldn’t be a problem. It would land only 14 hours after the new routing I was booked on. I would just get a hotel for the night in Sao Paulo, and have a much more relaxing day than spending 6 hours at the GRU lounge, then flying, then spending 7 hours at the United Club in Chicago.
This was only possible since I have a valid multi-entry visa for Brazil (although there is one transit-side hotel) that I got back in 2015. My only concern was the Yellow Fever vaccination I had been asked for at JNB, but I did a quick search online and confirmed I didn’t need one. I wasn’t in the mood to bargain hunt, and saw that the Sao Paulo Airport Marriott has a free shuttle, a pool, and a gym, and had a rate of $186, which should mostly be covered by my travel insurance anyway (up to $150/day). As a Gold member, I should have lounge access and could try for late checkout, so, good enough. Without a phone and wanting to already be ending the travel, it wasn’t worth it to me to schlep into the city and back, even though I’d have a full day.
Next I wanted to see if I could get my suitcase. The Star Alliance Lounge folks, as sweet as they were, couldn’t help, so I had them direct me back out. They sent me to the passport control for getting into the terminal, where I sort of communicated with a Border Police agent (I could not remember any Portuguese at this point), who told me how to get back to where I had come from about an hour earlier. There was no line at this point at Immigration, and though I thought there might be a problem as I wasn’t scheduled to enter the country, there wasn’t.
In the baggage claim hall, I started having flashbacks to one year ago and when I actually broke down crying trying to find someone to help me at GRU. I went to the South African lost luggage counter at baggage claim, where the guy told me I had to talk to United lost luggage. So, through customs and up to the United luggage office, where the people were very nice, and told me I had to go to South African, even though I had already been there. This was my 2016 AA/TAM/GOL nightmare all over again.
So, then I schlepped over to the SAA ground service office, where the guy who had told me to talk to United came back, and a woman spent about 5 minutes on the phone, before telling me some very strange explanation, that they wouldn’t be able to access the bag until 5:45 so I could wait until 6. In retrospect, I actually think that wasn’t a long time away but I thought it was a few hours. I really had no sense of time, and no phone at this point.
I asked what would happen if I just didn’t do anything and she said they’d hold it for me to pick up tomorrow when I came back to the airport. Fine. I had planned ahead and packed some clean shirts and underwear, just missing gym shorts and an extra pair of socks. Landside did not have any good shopping options, but there was a convenience store that had a pair of shorts, so I got that, realizing any mall near the hotel would be closed by the time I got there. (I didn’t realize at the time, but those shorts were FORTY DOLLARS.)
I thought I was lucky in that a shuttle for the Marriott pulled up about 2 minutes after I got there, but I waited about 20 minutes before we actually got going, and hit the two other terminals before making it to the hotel (picking up only one other person). By 5:30, I was at the Marriott, making the whole ordeal only two hours.
The Marriott was a pretty standard airport Marriott. The check-in agent was friendly, recognized my Gold Elite status, and told me about the lounge, breakfast, and an upgrade to the executive floor. From the looks of the lobby and the hallways, I was expecting a pretty dated room, but it actually had been renovated very recently, except for the bathroom I think (which was still fine and had L’Occitane toiletries).
There was a muffin/cupcake of some sort on the desk as a welcome amenity. I was glad to see the big desk given my plans to start catching up on work the following day. There were plenty of outlets, including universal ones, so I didn’t even need to worry about adapters. The internet was reliable enough that I was able to Facetime with my family back home and explain everything. One surprise was that there didn’t appear to be free water bottles, just water in the minibar, so I grabbed water from the lounge.
The lounge was having a happy hour from 5:30 to 7:30, so I popped in. The lounge wasn’t very large, with one main room and a smaller room with a couch and TV. The spread looked nice but didn’t have anything that actually tasted good or that I cared for. The drink selection was pretty meager, with some sodas, some beers, and a very limited wine/liquor bar. There was a woman on business talking so loudly that it was unpleasant, especially when some of her colleagues arrived, so I didn’t stay long.
After a shower, I headed down to the restaurant as I continued to fight to stay awake and reacclimate to Western hemisphere time. The bar in the lobby had some food, but I went to the restaurant, which had both buffet and a la carte options, and had a very very plain dinner of a chicken breast and salad, which was fairly overpriced. The chicken plus a bottle of water plus service fee came to about $25.
After dinner, I called down to ask about late checkout and they said whatever I needed and offered 6pm, which was a really pleasant and welcome surprise. I then went back to the lounge for a bit for a coffee. Though it was 8:10pm, the happy hour spread was out even though it was supposed to end 40 minutes earlier. The attendant asked each guest if they wanted anything before he took it away, which was really nice service. Apparently other people had different expectations, though, as two different guests asked for specific food items that were not on offer (crackers, fruit salad), as if it was a restaurant.
I slept pretty well, and headed to the lounge for breakfast. It was pretty basic, but suited my needs, with a small cold display and eggs, sausage, and bacon. The brownie was actually the best part of the meal.
The hotel has a large outdoor pool area, along with a resort-y area with tennis and basketball courts. It was not pool weather, but there were still people out there. I did hit the gym, which was pretty large and had a good range of equipment. The A/C was not keeping up with the Brazilian humidity though and I was absolutely drenched after a forty-minute workout.
I headed to checkout at 5:40pm, aiming for the 6pm shuttle. The stay came to $286 including meals, so it cost me $136 out of pocket after my travel insurance – not bad for 24 hours in a hotel. At least I got 6000 Marriott points out of it. The agent at checkout was pleasant, the shuttle arrived right on time – right before the skies opened up. If you’re in need of an airport hotel in Sao Paulo, the Marriott is a pretty good one – the service was actually quite good for Brazil, and the room was fine. The food was a bit exorbitantly priced but oh well. In all, except for the destruction of my phone, I was pretty happy with how I decided to handle the travel interruption.
Oh, and the storm was a bit of a dud, and the preemptive cancellation of flights at Dulles was totally unnecessary.